Pilot Retirement Age: A Vexing Issue of Safety versus Discrimination.
Directors are not medical examiners. But they have a responsibility to set policy regarding when a pilot should retire- notes Pete Agur.
here is no regulatory standard for the retirement age for Business Aviation pilots. That means your company’s pilot retirement policy is a corporate decision- and it should be addressed sooner- rather than later. The timing issue is driven home by the large number of Vietnam-era pilots filling the seats of aircraft flying for corporate America. Those pilots are now in their mid-sixties.
I turned 65 this past summer. To celebrate- I flew a fighter aircraft until the safety pilot- a Top Gun guy- asked me to knock it off. I didn’t stop grinning for a week. The point is that my stick and rudder skills are still pretty good. But my recall and expertise on complex aircraft systems and procedures are weakening. If I were still flying professionally- or even personally- I would want an experienced safety captain in the other seat. Those are my personal observations.
The regulatory benchmarks on pilot retirement are set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). For private operations not for hire (FAR Part 91) and for air taxi for hire (FAR Part 135)- there is no limit for crew age. The FAA age limit for pilots operating under scheduled commercial operations (FAR Part 121) was raised a few years ago to age 65. The European Union recently had a court case finding that pilots could fly commercially until age 65 as long as another cockpit crewmember was under age 60.
PROACTIVE RETIREMENT POLICY
Please understand that leaving the cockpit voluntarily is not easy for the vast majority of pilots. Most pilots fly because they love what they do. Others have been told by their significant others that they married them for better or worse- but not for lunch. In other words- don’t quit your day job. No matter what the motivation- a pilot is not likely- on his or her own volition- to retire on the day before they become a liability.
Even so- most Business Aviation departments do not have a formal flight crew retirement age. This is a problem because there is no easy way for a flight crew member to have their mental acuity and competence to fly confirmed. Flight training organizations are not in that business and don’t want to be.
Can you imagine the risks they would assume critiquing a pilot’s ability to continue to earn a living? Especially when the pilot has a great deal to say over which training vendor he or she uses? If your company has an aviation department- you have the opportunity and the responsibility to establish the retirement age of your pilots. A recent Federal Court Summary Judgment was handed down in favor of ExxonMobil for having done just that. ExxonMobil put an age 65 retirement rule in place. That policy has survived a challenge by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Obviously- the lawyers are considering appeals- so the case is not fully confirmed- but it appears the precedent has been set.
If your aircraft is operated for you by a management company- your flight crew retirement age issues are not necessarily settled. Most management companies ask the client to set that standard- which places the onus back on you- the customer.
An added challenge to a retirement policy is that many senior executives become inordinately attached to their pilots. After all- they have been through a lot together. And good pilots are hard to find.
So- why not trust your pilot to let you know when he or she wants to retire? It’s simple: because if there is no standard- there is no standard- and such an approach is inadequate governance. Do you leave it up to drinkers to stop on their own just before they are too impaired to drive? Of course you don’t. Yet- the users of Business Aviation often leave it up to the pilots to stop flying before they are mentally impaired by the aging process.
If you doubt the reality of the problem- you should hear the echoes in crew waiting rooms of stories told by junior pilots who routinely save their captains from embarrassment- or worse.
In closing- I offer you an elegant solution: Set a policy for your flight crewmembers to retire at the end of the calendar year in which they turn 65- years-old.
• It gives them something to plan on.
• It gives them an opportunity to gain any merit or tenure bonuses they may accrue during that year.
• It gives you and them an opportunity to celebrate their years of service.
• And most importantly- it gives you- as a Board Member- peace of mind that you have managed a very subtle- yet real risk to the safety of your company’s most important assets - its key travelers.
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