December 1, 2012

Mandatory Retirements for Airline Pilots Resume

What's that?  Turning 65?  See ya!

This month, December 2012, marks the five year anniversary of a new rule enacted by the United States Federal Aviation Administration that raised the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 60 to 65. For just about everyone but those approaching age 60, the change resulted in a five year career stagnation as pilots who were set to retire chose to stick around and enjoy the fruits of another five years at the top of the game.  Some argue that, for safety reasons, the airlines should be able to keep the most experienced pilots on the property for another five years.  Others argue that the system lacks sufficient regulations and procedures to weed out pilots who are not fit to fly past age 60 and that, for safety reasons, the limit should not have been raised.  The over 60 crowd is quick to point out that the deed is done and it's time to get used to the new norm.  On this I can agree, but...

...for Safety Reasons?

I never bought into the argument that the most senior pilots were a valuable resource that, if kept around for another five years, would increase levels of safety.  And I'm sad to say that I find myself to be a good example.  I've been an MD80 first officer for more than 13 years.  It stands to reason that with 13 years experience and close to 9,000 hours in type, that I would be a more valuable resource today than I was five years ago.  I don't think that's the case. I've been to every destination we serve many times over in every weather condition imaginable.  I've experienced more abnormal situations and emergencies than the airline would like me to admit to and I know the airplane and it's capabilities like the back of my hand.  I cannot disagree that the airline and my passengers benefit from my experience...but with many years on one type of aircraft, I find myself fighting complacency.  I'm bored...and the repetitive nature of certain parts of my job have dulled my senses, not sharpened them.

I find myself sharing the cockpit with an increasingly aged group of Captains who increasingly rely on me and my abilities.  They don't see with the same clarity or hear the same detail they once did.  They don't think as quickly or act with the same precision I have grown to expect from younger pilots.  I have yet to fly with a pilot over age 60 that did not show his age.  That isn't to say they aren't safe...but the increased levels of experience they bring to the cockpit are often outweighed by the effects of age.  I do not believe they are increasing the levels of safety.


It is my fervent belief that the real reason for changing the law was economics.  With many, if not most airlines in or recently emerged from bankruptcy, a significant number of pilots lost all or significant portions of their retirement savings.  The airline industry in the United States was in turmoil and pilots needed time to make up for what they had lost.  

I don't want to jump off into the deep end on this subject, but using bankruptcy proceedings to steal retirement accounts should be, in my opinion, a criminal act.  My own father is the perfect example to illustrate the point.  After a 32 year career at Delta Air Lines, Dad was promised a significant amount of money to provide for what we all hope will be a long, healthy retirement.  Every month for 32 years, he received a check for services rendered minus the amount the company had contractually agreed to deposit into his retirement account.  Every month for 32 years, he had less money in his hands with the promise he would get it back plus interest when he retired.

Dad flew until the week before his 60th birthday.  He retired in 2004 before the Delta bankruptcy and before the mandatory retirement age was raised to 65.  At the time of his retirement, he was permitted to take one half of his retirement with him when he left...which of course he did.  So really, he could be considered one of the lucky ones.  He got out with half.

The rest of his retirement was to be paid out like an annuity, with an amount of money most of us would consider significant paid out each month like a salary.  His first post bankruptcy check was 1/5th what he had been receiving and the rest was taken away a few months later.  In three short months, he went from taking home about what I make now, to absolutely nothing.  And to pour salt into the wound, his retiree medical benefits which had also been promised to him were unceremoniously removed as well.

So with significant numbers of airline pilots in the the same predicament as my father, the push to raise the retirement age began to build a head of steam.  Economics was the reason for the push...not safety.


To further explain the impact on the pilot group as a whole, it's important to note that everything about an airline pilot's work life is based on seniority.  Days off, vacation, domicile, layover cities, equipment type and seat...and therefore all determined by seniority.  He who got there first gets first choice.  He who got there last is stuck with what's left over.  And everyone in between chooses in order of seniority.  

As of the writing of this post, the airline I work for employs 527 pilots over age 60 and 34 pilots under age 40. At one point before rumors of bankruptcy scared large numbers of pilots into early retirement, we employed well over 700 pilots over age 60 who are quick to claim that their gains have had no real effect on those junior to them.  As of this very moment, we still have 649 pilots on furlough who have not yet been offered a chance to return to the airline.  Those gone the longest have been on the street for 11 years, 58 days, 12 hours, 8 minutes and 3 seconds (not that I'm counting).  How many of those 649 pilots would be employed by the airline today if it were not for the new law?  It's impossible to answer that question with a statement of fact, but speculation on the issue has been the source of many uncomfortable cockpit discussions.

The passage of time has largely squelched the argument, but most everyone still has strong feelings on the subject.  I am not shy about mine as I sit in the exact relative position I was in 5 years ago.  It's like someone hit the pause button on my career and I'm thankful that 12/31/2012 will mark the day I hit play once again.

What's done is done and it’s time to move on.  That is…it’s time for the old guys to move on.  As you can see from the table listed below, the junior guys at my airline will celebrate 2 mandatory retirements in December 2012 as our pilots begin to hit the new mandatory retirement age.  That number ramps up year over year until it peaks at 717 in 2024.  I take no pleasure in the fact that many of our most senior pilots would have escaped with more of their retirement funds intact if they had chosen to retire instead of sticking around for what seemed to many to be an obviously imminent bankruptcy.  Now we both lose.

It was always my intention to retire at age 60 regardless of the law.  During the comment period, while the new law was being considered, I was vocal about my desire for things to remain status quo.  I did not then, nor do I now, desire to work past age 60.  But now I find myself planning for my future retirement and I feel I was robbed of the best five years of my career.  I am largely out of debt and plan to stay that way.  I am 21 years happily married to my first and only wife (in itself, a great retirement plan) and I would like very much to retire when I’m still young enough to travel and enjoy the fruits of my retirement.  But I would also like, one day before I retire, to enjoy the benefits of being senior.  If I retire at age 60...I will never see senior.

My Retirement Projection
Before the law changed, I was forecast to retire at age 60 in the year 2028 with a seniority number of 201.  That’s pretty senior at an airline with over 8,000 pilots.  Today, if I retire at age 60, I will retire at number 955.  Admittedly, with my current seniority number well over 6,000, being number 955 doesn't sound all that bad except that today that number can’t hold the Boeing 777 as a Captain and that same number is barely a line holder on the Boeing 767.  This isn't the seniority or the great finish I had in mind after a 30 year airline career.

I am reminded of a conversation a friend of mine had with the number 2 Boeing 777 Captain at American Airlines a few years ago.  He was complaining loudly that the number one guy was ALWAYS getting the trip and vacation that HE wanted.  I suppose everyone needs something to complain about.

So now I’m beginning to consider flying past age 60 myself and I've made note of some of the reasoning provided by those over 60 with whom I have shared the cockpit.  I honestly don’t care anymore.  Some of these were told to me in person and others were shared with me by other First Officers.

It’s tongue-in-cheek folks, so enjoy...Top 10 reasons to work past age 60.

#10  "If I stopped flying to South America I would never be able to date a 20 year-old again." 
A truer statement was never written.

#9  "My health is bad, so I need the health insurance." 
If you're that sick, maybe you shouldn't be flying anyway!

#8  "I just love to fly." 
Yeah...takeoff, let the autopilot fly for 12 hours, land.  That’s some great flying.

#7  "I just love the way people look at me when I'm in uniform".   
You'll get more respect, and better benefits, as a greeter at Wal-Mart. 

#6  "I'll miss the layovers."   
Some truth to this, but vacations are way more fun.

#5  "My ex-wives…all three of them...have all my money.  I'm broke" 
Don't get me started!

#4  "My kids are still in grade school/high school/college." 
Ooops, see #5.

#3  "My classic Corvette is undergoing restoration in Detroit and I need to pay that off first."
            Ok, I'm a car guy so I can't really argue with this logic.

#2  "My mother-in-law is living with us and I need more money to support her." 
So?!  You'll never find her in your 6000 sf. house!

...and the #1 reason to work past age 60?

"I can't stand to be at home with the old lady" 
OK, at least this is a valid and truthful response.  And by the way, she isn't exactly excited about you hanging around the house either.  Buy yourself a kit plane and hang out at the airport!



  1. Wow, all well-said stuff. Love your Top 10, LOL!

    I kinda lean the opposite way, that there wasn't any real valid reason NOT to up the age to 65..."economic reasons" I think are NOT valid...shld be PURELY about safety. I think 65 is reasonable, though I wish it had come the day before I turned 60!

    That said, it's been a maddeningly stagnant 5 years, and I am very excited to see the floodgates open once again!

    Send me your address--I want to send you a copy of my book! ;)

  2. Thanks for the comment Aux. I completely get and respect the other side of the argument, but it sounds like you and I agree on two major points. It should be about safety...and should never have been about economics. We may or may not diverge on which of those two was the focus five years ago. It is my opinion that the push came about at a time when many airlines were going through or had just emerged from bankruptcy and airline pilots around the country wanted or needed time to refill their retirement accounts. I honestly don't think it was ever about safety.

    I guess I didn't mention this in the post, but I also think our society has become "politically correct" to a fault. Whether it was for safety reasons or not, I don't think it was PC to force an able bodied pilot to retire at 60. I'm left wondering how long age 65 will satisfy the masses on that point...I already hear rumors of a push for age 67.

    I too think 65 is reasonable, but I stand my ground in believing that 60 was safer.

    I sent you my address via facebook...but I think I'll pick up a copy for my Dad for Christmas. I hope you have a pleasant December Aux. I'm in the middle of 6 days on...a pill I took to get more time off around Christmas. The first three were a nightmare. Starting new today.

  3. Hi Brad,
    As a working professional who has already put in 15 years, I can relate to when you say 'This isn't the seniority or the great finish I had in mind after a 30 year airline career'. My personal view is that people should be retired at 60 to make way for the younger lot.

  4. Forcing airline pilots to retire 5 years earlier than most any other profession never seemed justified to me unless there was specific evidence that pilots were suddenly less safe after 60.

    While I realize that even 65 is an arbitrary number, it seems unreasonable to single out the piloting profession without a tangible reason.
    Those last 5 years are probably the most lucrative in a pilots career.

    And if pilots at age 60 are safer than those at 65, why not just force retirements at 55, or 50? Surely our faculties are somewhat diminished at those ages also.

    I agree that it shouldn't be economics that drive these decisions. But I've just never heard a valid reason for the age 60 rule.

    Anyway, just my 2 cents.
    I always enjoy your blog.

    1. Hello Kieth and thanks for your "2 cents"

      I know this is a polarizing topic and I always appreciate comments and input from my readers...even when they don't agree with my point of view. I respect your opinion. Thanks very much for reading and commenting.

      Happy landings.

  5. Great post Brad. You're very bold for stating your opinion in public. I'm surprised you haven't been flamed by "the other side" for being so honest.

    Five years ago, some said it wasn't fair to force an airline pilot to retire at the arbitrary age of 60. Their solution was to force them to retire at the arbitrary age of 65. ALL the arguments were really about one thing: buying time.

    Like you, I cared more five years ago than I do today. Even with the 100 aircraft UAL parked, I probably would not have been furloughed for the second time if the rule hadn't changed.

    But, I'm a firm believer that things work out for the best. Look for the best of the last five years and use it to your advantage as your career once again starts to progress.

  6. I suppose to gripe is merely human, but might your position change in 20 years (when you're no longer the kid on deck?) Agreed that there is an economic driver here, but you have to understand that the close-to-60 group took an epic hit. Anyone with 15, 20, 30(!) years of flying left in 'em stands to come out alright. It's the 60-70 year old group that got hopelessly screwed with bankruptcy filings, etc. This segment doesn't get the luxury of recovering lost wages via new contracts for the next 20 years. Think on that before you throw your seniors under the bus.

  7. Its odd how your age and experience effect your view on retirement age.

    We all have our opinions depending on our life styles. In any job, I think if you are capable of doing the work, you should be able to compete for the jobs.

    If an airline pilot can fly his retirement flight a day before his 65th Birthday, what makes him unsafe the following day?

    Its all about the money. Employers always want cheap young labor. How many young CEO's do you see? Not many....