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Senators debate clipping pilots' wings at age 60


WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Southwest Airlines pilot Ron Richtsmeister is just six weeks from turning 60. So what's his birthday present from the Federal Aviation Administration? He's one of 1,400 pilots being forced from the cockpit this year.

"It's sort of like a knife in the back," he said. "Here, I worked for years and years to get to this point. I enjoy my work. I'm just getting to the point where I'm relatively good at it. I'm in good health and I want and need to work."

Should pilots be forced to retire at age 60?

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An FAA rule prohibiting pilots over 60 from flying commercially has been on the books 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.

"It needs to be changed. It's wrong," Richtsmeister said.

Age discrimination?

The Senate Commerce Committee, which scheduled a Tuesday afternoon hearing on the issue, is considering a bill that would allow airline pilots to fly until age 65.

"This is kind of an age discrimination issue," said Senator Frank Murkowski, R-Alaska, 67, a sponsor of the bill. "You know these people, suddenly they are 60 and they are not fit to fly anymore. That is ridiculous. I would much rather fly with an experienced pilot that is 65 or 66 than someone who is just getting started."

Pilots 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.

An FAA spokesman said it can't be assured at this time that raising the retirement age beyond age 60 would maintain or raise the level of safety.

The Air Line Pilots Association also opposes changing the rule, saying medical science has not developed tests to identify those aging pilots who are, or will become, incapacitated.

Last year, a group of 69 pilots who believe they should be allowed to fly after age 60 took the matter to the U.S. Court of Appeals in Chicago. That case is pending.

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Air Line Pilots Association
Federal Aviation Administration

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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