Raise the Roof
- Advanced Aircrew Academy
Recently, Sen. Lindsey Graham proposed legislation to raise the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots to 67 from the current 65. The last time the age cap was raised was in 2007 when it jumped from 60 to 65 in an urgent attempt to address pilot shortages. Those shortages still exist, as does the continuing debate in the commercial aviation community on whether or not an age increase is appropriate. But unlike commercial airlines, Part 135 and Part 91 have no age restriction. Still, can this change affect us and is it a positive change?
With life expectancy rates continuing to fall in the United States and health epidemics of obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, and various other medical conditions escalating, it is prudent to say that raising the allowable age for flight could come with risk, but it is a risk based on the individual and not a statistic.
In the 2007 debates for raising the age limit, multiple studies were done among airline pilots themselves and the general public who mostly agreed that there was no definitive way to assess the impairment or skill deterioration of older pilots; therefore the age restriction should remain, despite the fact that since the inception of the 60-year-old age limit in 1959, there had been zero accidents attributed to pilot aging in any National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report during those 48 years. The general public does not seek those facts and, too often, may engage in their own normalized bias against senior pilots since they see them unfairly as a risk. This is where business aviation may be affected from this shift in the age restriction. Our customer's confidence and safety matter, so perhaps if Americans are able to see older crews safely piloting commercial aircraft, it will trickle down to having confidence in senior business aviation crews as well.
While several studies have indicated that age generally had a more significant effect on older pilots when it came to cognitive skills required for radio communication, the study also showed that senior pilots were often able to mitigate this issue through experience, effective note taking, and other practiced techniques to handle multiple lines of communication or tasks at once. That is, experience that comes with age was often found to be more of an advantage than a risk.
The Allied Pilots Association (APA), representing 14,000 American Airlines pilots, actively opposes raising the mandatory retirement age, as they did in 2007. They maintain there is no pilot shortage and suggest that their own pilot community shows a decline in cognitive abilities as they reach more advanced age. So, as you might expect, the debate is no less heated than it was 15 years ago and there are multiple organizations pitted on either side of the issue.
The reality is that this is a complex issue that cannot be solidly studied or definitely answered because we are all different, age in our own unique way, and bring different levels of mental and physical fitness, skill, and experience to the job. While the commercial airline restriction may not directly affect the business aviation community, it follows that we should all do our own risk assessment as we age and acknowledge our individual changes and work diligently and effectively to find ways in which to compensate. Through our own honesty and introspection, we must each responsibly decide when it is ultimately time to hand over the controls.