Senators question rule grounding older pilots
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A federal rule requiring commercial pilots to quit flying after age 60 drew criticism from lawmakers Tuesday during a Capitol Hill hearing, some of them calling it age discrimination.
"There are men and women who are arbitrarily deprived of employment with no other criteria except an arbitary age limit. I'm not sure that's good for America and I'm not sure that's good for the individuals," said Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
The Federal Aviation Administration's rule prohibiting pilots over 60 from flying commercially has been in place since 1959, when the agency worried about older pilots making a transition to turbo-jet aircraft. The FAA also cited concerns about heart problems, fatigue and reaction time.
But a bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, would allow airline pilots to fly until age 65.
"The reality is we have a shortage of pilots. We have experienced pilots we're setting loose when we don't have to, and it doesn't make sense," he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said the rule is outdated and should be changed.
"I think it ought to be possible to find some way to allow capable pilots to continue flying beyond their 60th birthday," he said.
Pilots unhappy with the rule have long argued the cut-off age is arbitrary, and that frequent physicals for airline pilots provide an adequate safeguard. All airline pilots, regardless of age, must pass a flight physical every six months.
A 1993 study showed no increase in accidents as pilots approach age 60. But the FAA questions the data. It says a new study finds the accident rate for pilots age 60 to 63 was statistically greater than the accident rate for pilots age 55 to 59.
"Until we can be assured that increasing the age 60 limit will not negatively impact the level of safety, we cannot support a change through legislative action," said L. Nicholas Lacey, director of the FAA's Flight Standards Service.
Pilots union backs rule
The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents 59,000 pilots, also opposes changing the rule, saying medical science has not developed tests to identify those aging pilots who are, or will become, incapacitated.
"I urge the committee to respect the authority of the FAA ... and to refrain from moving legislation to overturn the rule," said Capt. Duane E. Woerth, the ALPA's president.
Capt. Paul Emens, chairman of Pilots Against Age Discrimination, criticized the pilots' union for its backing of the rule, suggesting it was controlled by younger pilots.
"This is economics, senators, not safety," he said.
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