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FAA Reconsiders Pilot Retirement Age

May 8, 2007 at 6:30 PM EDT

TOM BEARDEN, NewsHour Correspondent: Southwest Airlines Flight 1 had an engine on fire.

PILOT: Declare an emergency, please.

TOM BEARDEN: Pilots Bob Torti and Ron Sparks had just lifted off from the runway when the warning sounded.

PILOT: Southwest, turn back to the airport, please.

TOM BEARDEN: No excitement. No panic.

PILOT: Fire trucks are standing by, is that correct?

CO-PILOT: That is correct.

PILOT: Roger that. Speed brake is on. V-Light, flash 15, please. Landing gear is down, three green, thousand feet, 140, 800. Coming back on the speed just a little.

TOM BEARDEN: They went through the checklist for a one-engine flight and brought the 737 safely back to the ground. Well, sort of. They never actually left the ground in the first place. This 737 cockpit is a simulator at Southwest Airlines’ training facility in Dallas.

PILOT: All right. Piece of cake.

TOM BEARDEN: Both pilots have decades of experience. They’ve practiced this emergency procedure, and many others, countless times. But neither one will ever fly passengers again. A Federal Aviation Administration regulation forced both men to retire the day they turned 60 years old.

How would you assess individually yourselves, your skills as pilots today?

BOB TORTI, Director of Flight Training, Southwest Airlines: Well, I think I just demonstrated that we actually flew almost a perfect approach and take-off with an engine failure. And I feel right now that I am at the prime of my career, with 30 years’ experience at Southwest Airlines. And it’s a shame that the law is what it is.

Raising the retirement age

TOM BEARDEN: For some pilots, like Dwight Langsdale, the regulation is particularly onerous, because financial turmoil in the airline industry has led to dramatically reduced pensions for many pilots. He and his wife, Patti, would have liked him to be able to work longer to boost his savings, particularly because there just aren't many other jobs in the offing.

DWIGHT LANGSDALE, Former Pilot: I went to a career counselor to try to see if I could create a new career or something like that. And that didn't work out too well, in general. In generalization, airline pilots don't recycle very well.

PATTI LANGSDALE, Wife of Former Pilot: I think he really feels lost more than anything. He doesn't know what -- what am I going to do now? Because, you know, we're 60. We're not 80.

TOM BEARDEN: This year, the FAA will explore raising the retirement age to 65 to bring the U.S. into line with international rules, which already allow foreign pilots over 60 to fly in U.S. skies. Congress also has bills supporting the change. But some say there isn't any more justification for picking 65 than there was for 60.

SEN. TED STEVENS (R), Alaska: I'm 82 this year. I think I'm in better shape than I was when I was 60. I can run faster.

Individual variability

TOM BEARDEN: And despite years of research, science doesn't have a definitive answer about how old is too old. Using a small-scale flight simulator, researchers at Stanford University and the Veterans Administration in California are testing private pilots who can fly past 60.

PILOT TRAINER: The first emergency is a traffic emergency. When you see traffic...

TOM BEARDEN: Don Mackenzie volunteered to take periodic tests to measure his skills as he gets older. Somewhere in the flight, the engine oil pressure begins to drop, just as controllers begin to barrage McKenzie with bursts of information.

DON MACKENZIE, Former Pilot: Two-four-zero, 1,500, and 123.1.

TOM BEARDEN: It's designed to test a key piloting skill: the ability to remember and handle several short-term tasks at once.

DON MACKENZIE: It's really, really hard, and it's very frustrating. It's impossible to get everything right all the time. Too much is thrown at me too fast, and that's the design of the test.

TOM BEARDEN: Stanford Professor Joy Taylor says her studies show it's an ability that often declines with age, but not always.

JOY TAYLOR, Stanford University: Rather what we see, which we were not surprised, is the wide individual differences.

TOM BEARDEN: If the individual variability is as large as you say it is, does a retirement age at 65 make any more sense than a retirement age at 60?

JOY TAYLOR: What some of the pilots have argued is that pilots in this day and age are much healthier than they were in 1959, when the rule was first developed and enforced. So if they can pass the same medical tests at age 65 that a 55-year-old or anyone is passing, and if we can show that our cognitive abilities are at the same level as what you expect for a younger pilot, then we should be able to fly.

TOM BEARDEN: But it gets more complicated. Stanford Professor Jerome Yesavage says some older pilots can compensate for loss of cognitive ability with increased experience.

JEROME YESAVAGE, Stanford University: If you can imagine that people are slowing down with aging at the same time as they're gaining experience, there's a trade-off between the two as you age. And it's not quite clear what the optimum age is, where the two of those things meet.

TOM BEARDEN: Dr. Donald Hudson, who advises the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union, says there's no clear scientific answer.

DR. DONALD HUDSON, Adviser, Air Line Pilots Association: The scientific literature regarding aging and performance in pilots and medical incapacitation risk is mixed. And groups with different agendas tend to kind of cherry pick the data that's out there to support their position.

The problem you get into, though, is looking at, not just individual stuff, but also a population or a group of people, and that risk does increase with age, even if you're in the best of health.

Opposing the age increase

TOM BEARDEN: Pilots unions for American and Southwest Airlines, headquarters just a few miles from each other in Dallas-Fort Worth, have diametrically opposing viewpoints on the age question.

Scott Shankland is a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, which represents American Airlines pilots. They oppose raising the age limit.

SCOTT SHANKLAND, Allied Pilots Association: It is arbitrary. We do acknowledge that. But that age has worked for 47 years, and we've never had an accident attributed to the effects of aging.

TOM BEARDEN: If it's not broke, don't fix it.

SCOTT SHANKLAND: Exactly. Exactly.

TOM BEARDEN: American's union argues that older pilots are more at risk of having medical problems, like the pilot of this Continental jet.

TV REPORTER: An emergency landing at the McAllen-Miller International Airport this afternoon. Passengers tell us their pilot had a heart attack.

TOM BEARDEN: The flight had taken off from Houston and was bound for Mexico when the 58-year-old pilot collapsed and died, apparently from natural causes. The co-pilot was able to land the plane without incident in McAllen, Texas.

SCOTT SHANKLAND: It is a statistical fact that, as people get older, you start having more of these events, both the sudden catastrophic events and the subtle effects of aging. So it's not maybe these things are going to occur. I mean, these already are occurring, and they will occur with more frequency as people continue to fly for a longer age.

TOM BEARDEN: In a recent poll, 80 percent of Allied Pilots Association members voted in favor of retaining the age 60 rule. A majority of the members of another union, the Air Line Pilots Association, also voted to retain the current retirement age, although acknowledging the issue has become divisive. ALPA has now set up a blue ribbon committee to study the question.

Trying to overturn the rule

In contrast, SWAPA, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, has gone to the courts trying to get the rule overturned.

JOSEPH EICHELKRAUT, Former President, Southwest Airlines Pilot Association: Aging is not an illness. That's the key point here. Everybody ages on their own time schedule. There's no magic bullet, if you will, that occurs at age 60.

TOM BEARDEN: Joe Eichelkraut is the union's past president.

Is 65 just as arbitrary as 60?

JOSEPH EICHELKRAUT: Absolutely, but it's certainly in the right direction. It's a step in the right direction.

TOM BEARDEN: He says increasing the retirement age would actually enhance safety, because the most proficient and experienced pilots would get to fly longer. And Southwest pilots don't get a traditional pension from the airline. They have a 401(k) program and profit-sharing instead. If they can work longer, they can build a bigger nest egg.

But at American, pilots have a defined benefit pension plan, where monthly payouts are theoretically guaranteed for life. That could be an incentive to retire earlier.

JOSEPH EICHELKRAUT: It basically comes down to economics. I can't say that more plainly than that.

TOM BEARDEN: It all comes down to economics for David Mann, too. He spent 23 years flying for Southwest. He retired last April with the traditional water display from airport fire trucks. Mann is part of a class-action lawsuit against the government, asserting the current law is age discrimination.

DAVID MANN, Former Pilot: We think we've been discriminated against by the federal government. They have a rule, age 60, that you can no longer fly. Because they have no scientific basis for that and because they've deprived me of my right to do my job, you know, that's basically the basis of it.

TOM BEARDEN: The suit asks for damages from the government for lost income.

In the meantime, the FAA will seek public comment on the proposal to raise the retirement age. No matter what is eventually decided, David Mann and all the other retired pilots won't be able to go back to work. Any change will not be retroactive.