Why is there a pilot shortage? Start with ageism



It’s being called travel Armageddon: Thousands of flights canceled. Travelers stranded in airports for days. And some airports losing service altogether. The airline industry is nosediving amid a perfect storm of staff shortages. 

During the pandemic, thousands of pilots were offered early retirement packages and others were fired or furloughed because of lack of travel demand. This came on top of an already looming pilot shortage due to the advancing age of baby boomers, who as of 2019 made up almost half the pilots in the air. Now travel is rebounding from the pandemic, and the lack of pilots is dire. 

The question remains: Why have a mandatory retirement age at all?

Yet the number of pilots continues to shrink. About 5,773 pilots a year are hitting the age of 65, when the Federal Aviation Administration mandates retirement for commercial airline pilots. By 2029, not a single baby boomer will be able to legally fly commercial aircraft. As they leave, they take not just a substantial part of the labor force with them, but also decades of expertise and experience in the air. 

As airlines in the U.S. try to hire 12,000 pilots this year alone, numerous solutions have been contemplated — including reducing the number of required training hours for commercial pilots and providing greater financial aid and other incentives for young people to choose the profession. 

Thankfully, raising the retirement age is also being looked at. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is reportedly considering introducing a proposal to raise it by two years to age 67. But the question remains: Why have a mandatory retirement age at all? 

Retirement requirements seem archaic at best, as people are living and working longer. Yet in a narrow slice of professions, successful cases have been made that being younger is a bona fide occupational qualification, since these jobs require extreme levels of physical and/or mental skills. Given that such skills tend to decrease as we get older, mandatory retirement ages can be legal even though Congress has outlawed them for almost everyone else under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. 

On the surface, the premise makes sense. The older we get, the more likely we are to see declines in our physical and mental abilities. The person flying a plane needs to be both mentally and physically up to the task. But there is already a process to ensure this, regardless of age, which gives the lie to the idea that an arbitrary age limit is needed. 

“Performance evaluation is a never-ending part of the life of an airline pilot,” noted Hank Schwarz, a pilot for Continental Airlines for almost 30 years who retired just four months short of his 65th birthday. He pointed out that he had to go through continuous flight training and requalification and check-in rides throughout each year, as well as have annual FAA physical examinations. 

“If you perform poorly enough, your career with the airline is over,” he told me. At the same time, he continued, “everybody knows someone who is 65 or older who performs tasks both mentally and physically as well as a younger person can.” 

If the mandated retirement age is vital to ensure our safety, it seems puzzling that no medical profession has one. Pilots are not safe to work past age 65, but our neurosurgeons are? If doctors (arguably members of the industry most qualified to make this call) are not mandating a retirement age, why is anyone else? 

When the mandatory retirement age was raised from 60 to 65 in 2007, medical reports provided to the Senate Committee on Aging “concluded that age had an insignificant impact on [performance] decrement in the cockpit, and there were safety precautions in place … to prevent accidents in case of incapacitation.” 

Of course, it is important to have rigorous protocols in place to determine when age or other circumstances are causing deterioration — as they already are: Commercial pilots are required to undergo medical checks every six months to ensure they are healthy and otherwise able to pilot an aircraft safely. As an added layer of caution, two-pilot cockpits are required for all commercial flights. 

According to Robert Applebaum, a professor of gerontology and the Scripps Research Fellow at Miami University, aging affects every individual’s health and abilities differently. That is why gerontologists advocate for an individual-oriented perspective rather than setting arbitrary age limits or focusing on artificial chronological dividing lines.

“It’s complex to assess one’s complete capabilities, and when we aren’t sure the best way to do that, we tend to use age as a default,” Applebaum said. “The same argument about age and safety was made when the mandatory retirement age for pilots was 60, yet it was successfully moved to 65. But there’s nothing magic about age 65.”

Another pilot pointed out that looking only at physical metrics means excluding other types of qualifications. “We do have to acknowledge that as you get older, you lose some motor function and lose some memory, but you also become very experienced,” Jeff Skiles, who was the first officer during the celebrated emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in 2009, told Forbes. “Experience doesn’t make up for physical decline, although it’s not the same for every individual, but certainly, with robust testing you could extend the age.” 

While safety is the initial argument for the compulsory retirement age for pilots, other reasons seem to quickly emerge from those who want it to stay. Both the Allied Pilots Association, or APA, and the Air Line Pilots Association, or ALPA, for instance, oppose Graham’s proposed increase in the mandatory retirement age. In a statement, the ALPA cited studies that found that “cognitive abilities decline with increasing age, and there is an increased risk of cardiovascular issues and diabetes,” concluding that “increasing pilot mandatory retirement age beyond 65 increases risk in aviation.”  

Is the mandated retirement age for pilots based on safety concerns, or is it also a way to clear the runway (pun intended) for the next generation?

But the ALPA and the APA have also stated that raising the retirement age would have unintended consequences, specifically that pilots over 65 could fly only domestically (since the international age limit is also 65). This would result in displacing younger pilots from domestic routes.

For any profession, a healthy talent pipeline is vital. Barriers such as the prohibitive cost of getting one’s pilot’s license and obtaining the required 1,500 hours of training need to be addressed. 

However, including these arguments in the defense of mandatory retirement ages muddies the waters. Is the mandated retirement age for pilots based on safety concerns, or is it also a way to clear the runway (pun intended) for the next generation? 

For any industry to thrive, it must value its people of all ages and generations. Beyond the friendly skies, pilots need an age-friendly industry: one that continues to mandate safety while still valuing age and experience, retaining those pilots who have reached 65 but have still been found to be healthy enough to fly while parting ways with those who have not. It is time to clear the boomers for takeoff.

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