Pilot hero Jeff Skiles, first officer on US Airways Flight 1549 that landed in the Hudson River 13 years ago, Saturday, sees a simple solution to the pilot shortage.
Let pilots who are over 65 keep flying, Skiles says. Congress raised the mandatory retirement age to 65 from 60 in 2007. Now it should be raised again.
Raising the mandatory retirement age again “is something that should be looked at,” Skiles said. “The retirement age has always been arbitrary. It never reflected any kind of medical science.”
John Mica, the retired former Florida Congressman who spearheaded the 2007 expansion to age 65, adds, “We could look at even further expansion today.
“I have no problem with that, as long as they pass a medical test and also look at reflex and cognitive ability,” Mica said in an interview Monday.
“Something that can’t be beat is experience on the job,” Mica said. “I don’t know of any incidents where we have had a problem (with pilots over 60).
Today, the pilot shortage is a looming crisis, as older pilots retire faster than newer ones come aboard. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby told a Senate panel last month that United’s regional partners will have to park nearly 100 regional jets due to the shortage. The country faces a shortage of more than 12,000 pilots by the end of 2023, according to a study by Oliver Wyman. In Japan, the mandatory pilot retirement age is 67.
Two key factors mitigate any risk from raising the age. One is that pilots already undergo mandatory medical examinations every six months, so age-related decline can be measured and tested as part of a robust, existing protocol. Secondly, commercial aviation requires two-pilot cockpits.
Recommended For You
“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,” Skiles said.
“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,” he said. “We already have individual testing records. We could test for those things that are going to be problematic in older populations, and we could continue to have those people in the cockpit.”
As for the cockpit environment, Skiles noted that, “You are already in a multi-pilot crew. Even with somebody 66 or 67 in the left seat (captain), the person in the right seat passed the same check ride and is fully qualified,” and is very likely younger.
Skiles, a Chicago-based American Airlines
Oh sure, he concedes, “I’ve lost some hair. I don’t look as much like Aaron Eckhart.” The actor played Skiles in the 2016 movie “Sully,” which told the story of the landing of Flight 1549, which Skiles and Capt. Sully Sullenberger landed on the Hudson River after it lost both engines. The two pilots and the flight attendants all became heroes.
While the case for lifting the mandatory age seems clear, it does not have the support of the U.S. aviation community. In Skiles’ words, “At this point, the unions are on the sidelines on this. That’s one of the difficulties of moving this forward: No group right now is interested in doing anything about it.”
As for the carriers, he said, “the industry keeps saying we need to lower qualifications, not increase the age where we can take advantage of the experience out there. and there is no John Mica out there,” Skiles said.
Mica, a Florida congressman for 24 years until his unexpected 2016 defeat, had a powerful impact on aviation in various transportation-related offices including chair of the House Transportation Committee and of its aviation subcommittee.
Mica said he pushed for the bill on behalf of a onetime fraternity brother, who was “about to be forced out of a major commercial airline when he turned 65. It was kind of unfair. He was an excellent pilot with an impeccable record. He loved to fly. He was going to be put out to pasture. It was something that needed to be updated.”
Mica makes clear that he is open to extending the age past 65.
“My motivation (the first time) was the age limit needed to be changed,” he said. “We had that provision for decades. But today people are healthier. The live longer. And the more experience a pilot has, the better the operations.”
The two principal pilots’ unions, the Air Line Pilots Association and the Allied Pilots Association, do not support an increase to 65. ALPA declined to comment for this story.
Airlines For America, the industry trade group, provided this one sentence comment: “U.S. airlines comply with all federal regulations regarding our crews.”
APA spokesman Dennis Tajer said the pilot shortage results from poor planning by the industry. “It is not a reason to consider raising the retirement age,” he said. APA represents 14,000 American Airlines pilots.
“Airlines and governments have failed to ensure that there is an unhindered pathway to becoming an airline pilot,” Tajer said. “They have failed to connect the pilot pipeline to becoming a pilot.
“This is a pilot pipeline problem, not a pilot shortage,” Tajer said. “After a pilot obtains a commercial license, the supply chain breaks and many are not finding the ability to build their experience and hours.”
As for raising the retirement age, Tajer said, “It’s not nestled in science nor is the rest of the world considering it. It’s a lazy solution.”