Update: Senate Committee Approves FAA Reauthorization Bill

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Whether or not to raise the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots from 65 to 67 is high on the list of issues to be discussed at tomorrow’s Executive Session on FAA reauthorization. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will meet at 10 a.m. in Washington, as announced today (Feb. 7) by Ranking Member Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas. The current temporary authorization will expire next month. Those interested in watching the executive session can access the feed live on the committee website.

In a letter to the committee, FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker warned against taking such action without appropriate research, despite the challenges of a worsening worldwide pilot shortage. He wrote, “We recognize that other countries have not conducted research prior to increasing their upper age limit, but in the United States, we have the largest most complex system in the world … In the case of possibly implementing an increase in pilot age, we believe it is crucial to provide the agency an opportunity to conduct research and determine mitigations.”

Aviation industry advocates have long cited the urgency of enacting long-term FAA reauthorization, citing the need for continuity and reliable funding for modernization and infrastructure improvements. The fact that the current proposed legislation is still named “The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2023” underscores the fact that there have already been two temporary funding measures enacted since the congressional negotiations began last year.

As to the potentially contentious issue of pilot age, Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said, “The FAA has made clear that a scientific and safety analysis must come first. That has not happened. Aviation safety is paramount, and now is not the time to take a shortcut.”

Updated Feb. 8: The Senate committee approved the bill today, with no mention of added provisions related to pilot age limits for Part 121 airlines. The bill now goes before the full Senate for consideration. General Aviation Manufacturers Association President and CEO Pete Bunce praised the committee’s approval of the bill: “We are particularly pleased to see that the bill includes provisions to improve the FAA’s rulemaking process, strengthen the agency’s international effectiveness, support workforce development, maintain sustainability efforts and foster agency and industry innovation. We commend the committee for advancing this important legislation and are grateful for the work of Senators Cantwell, Cruz, Duckworth and Moran for championing the bill. We are hopeful that the House and Senate will work in a coordinated and expedient manner to advance a final bill through Congress in the near term.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

14 COMMENTS

  1. The age issue is a distraction from the real issue, ensuring an adequate and stable funding stream for the FAA. It is impossible for the FAA to address the critical issues if they don’t have stable funding.

    • Stable funding for an agency with absolutely NO accountability, whose employees spend more time teleworking and fighting their recall to their facilities than they do working, whose REAL main focus is on “equity” (which also includes the other 2 letters of D and I but is not stated on the website as such) and is led by another empty suit who brings no real experience in aviation oversight to the table is a HUGE mistake. Taxpayers have NO idea what is actually going on behind the curtain.

  2. David G is correct on the stable funding issue. On the other hand Mr Whitaker’s comments just confirms in my mind that he is just another Huerta type bureaucrat who would delay this issue as long as he can get away with it. This excuse for more research is just another FAA dragging its feet, so that they can justify the age limit in the first place.

  3. “we believe it is crucial to provide the agency an opportunity to conduct research and determine mitigations”
    An opportunity? We’ve been kicking this issue of mandatory max age for pilots and controllers for 20 years or more!

  4. David G makes a very relevant observation about the importance of stable and adequate funding for the FAA.

    Regarding raising the mandatory age from 65 to 67, age is number and there is an arbitrary quality to where to set it. Yes, aging causes a decline in health as well as cognitive abilities, however, some individuals suffer from these issues even earlier (some never live to see their 65th birthday). In the United States, a First Class medical is valid for 6 calendar months for operations requiring a first class medical is age 40 or older on the date of the examination, and a First Class medical is a requirement for exercising Airline Transport Pilot privileges. Regulators tend to be very cautious by nature when making regulatory changes, but I fail to see what a study will prove other than providing statistics of “averages”; no individual is average.

    Of course, ICAO Annex 1 states that a Contracting State, having issued pilot licences, shall not permit the holders thereof to act as pilot of an aircraft engaged in international commercial air transport operations if the licence holders have attained their 60th birthday or, in the case of operations with more than one pilot, their 65th birthday. So a pilot who has been at the pinnacle of their career flying trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific to more exotic destinations might be spending the last two sunset years of his career doing NY to LA. That might be fine for some, especially those who have multiple alimonies and child support to pay.

    I used to be an airline pilot but decided that I didn’t want to be on a flight deck until age 60, much less age 65 (67?!?!?…gasp!!!) and set the parking brake for the last time in 2020. I remember hearing a statistic that the life expectancy for airline pilots is decreased by an average of 2 years for every one year of work after age 60. One of the bargaining chips that airline pilots have held to justify their above-average wages is the amount of education and training that they need to receive (and have had to pay for), the hardships (time away from home and loved ones), the great responsibility (if a doctor makes a critical mistake a patient dies, if a pilot makes a critical mistake 244 passengers die), personal risks (not being able to pass a medical exam or simulator check), and relative shortness of their career – they needed to make their money within a shortened timeframe (before age 60) to afford retirement. By extending that time frame, perhaps even indefinitely in the future, employers might counter-argue that pilots can work as long as they want and being able to maintain good health is a personal responsibility.

    Just sayin’. Being an airline pilot is a cool job and the uniforms, authority and responsibility that Captains get can be addictive, but there is more to life than being in a cockpit. Be careful what you hope for, because you might get it.

  5. The main factor in the airline pilot retirement age requirement is that ALPA, APA, SWAPA and the other unions lobby for this item. ALPA fought tooth and nail to prevent the raise of retirement age to 65 in 2007. It’s the younger pilot members who don’t want an age increase because it keeps them in the right seat longer.

  6. ICAO has mandatory age requirement covering most of Europe so even if FAA raises their age limit those over 65 will not be able to fly international. My personal belief however is that each individual is different so take a test to see if you have mental and physical abilities to fly past 65.

  7. I happen to be in good physical shape and I have worked at it for all of my life. It isn’t always easy or fun. As far as the mental test, what test and by whom? I get a check ride every 12 months and 2 physicals (FAA) a year. When I fail to pass the check ride or medical my time is done. If I can do it until 67, why not? Every pilot is different irt fitness and ability. The FAA wants to kick the can down the road irt doing more research. It will be years before any results are released. There was no standard when age 60 was set nor was one established for age 65. For many of us flying Part 121, staying healthy and active is a way of life. Flying 1 or 2 more years (btw, you can leave when you want to) is not that difficult. Please refrain from the go buy a little plane and fly it around comments, been there done that.

  8. In all the First Class medical examinations I took, my doctor never checked my cognitive abilities. The hearing test was absurdly easy for me to pass but there were many times I asked my first officer “What did he say?” I knew my right eye was not working as well as my left the last few years of my career but my doctor’s eye chart never changed from year to year. If the FAA wants to let pilots fly till they’re 80 maybe a more stringent physical would be a good idea.

    • Don’t be so sure your cognitive abilities were not checked. There are many interactions with an AME and most are quite observant. Every AME has the ability to do additional testing in office beyond the very specific things the FAA asks us to do if a concern is raised, either by you or the AME.

      As for the eye charts, it is a test to determine visual acuity. They do not change and are relatively standardized. The near/intermediate vision chart is issued by the FAA. If pilots cheat and memorize them, there’s not much we can do about it.

      As you know, the regs prohibit flight with a known disqualifying deficiency until that deficiency is addressed and you, as PIC, make that determination before every flight. Cataracts affect many people, the detection and correction is straightforward and return to flight duty is rapid, as in as soon as your vision is stable. Your next physical will require an 8500-7 and if you meet the visual requirements we can issue your certificate.

      The hearing test can be an audiometer, most AMEs don’t use one, but you can get a comprehensive test from an audiologist or, if you don’t pass (some don’t) we can refer and get audiometry. Again, the goal is can you function effectively in the cockpit for the duration of your certificate.

      One thing that has come up repeatedly after a night ops incident in Kentucky, related to color vision. The NTSB determined the FO had a color vision defect that was not detected on the FAA recommended testing. It was not a factor in the crash, but NTSB has been pushing the FAA to replace its present criteria. Color vision is a stable condition, established at birth. The instrumentation the NTSB wants the FAA to require is expensive and usually not available in smaller non-academic cities and towns and is cost prohibitive.

      Doing all this will probably raise the cost of your flight physical substantially, or make them less available. If the FAA does change the CV standards, the equipment will have to be paid for, and pilot volumes won’t cover the cost. So, you’ll be sent to the center that does have it at an additional cost of time and a couple of hundred for the eye exam in addition to what you pay for your physical now. OK for a high time left seater, but what about the student pilot who will be faced with a Class 3 medical costing upwards of $500 by the time we do all that. New pilots are very cost sensitive and easily discouraged.

      We can do all the things you ask, but why? How do they affect the safety in the cockpit? If you can’t hear your FO, then tell your AME. He’ll schedule the audiometry or you can be proactive and get it yourself and he can review it. Same with cataracts. If you can’t see out of your right eye, you can’t see and avoid right of way traffic as well which creates a hazard. Get it taken care of and bring the paperwork, don’t memorize an eye chart.

      The FAA flight physical is no substitute for your routine preventive health exams with your family physician who has a long term relationship and should be the primary source of health care. The AME’s purpose is different.

  9. Re: UG comments

    The following utterances come from one who has been a pilot for 58 years and was a practicing physician for 47 years.

    The “bargaining chips“
    – wages – both disciplines are above average. No question on that one for sure.
    -education and training
    12 years for my specialty training and then, at that time, followed by the required two years minimum in the service (mine was Air Force).
    – hardships – I’d rather have a cushy job with time off and excellent pay than putting in the long hard hours and being on call nights and weekends.
    – responsibility – true, in either profession critical mistakes can make for dead people. However, looking at a patient eye to eye or under your hand on the operating table is personally different than doing your job and thinking of getting yourself and the airplane safely to the destination/alternate and not so much thinking about the number in the back.
    – Relative shortness of career – in my instance, pretty much a tossup.

    Absolutely agree that there is more to life than being in either flying or medicine.
    OK, I’ve vented. Would ask for a retort if I am mistaken or not seeing something.

  10. Contrary to the excuse deluge, there have been many studies of the various relationships among age, cognitive decline, piloting ability, decision making, and overall safety. (I was a subject in one of them out of Stanford but that in itself doesn’t qualify me to say anything – I’m writing on my own here.) Using the Age Number as a measure of piloting ability is quaint at best, scientifically obsolete, and relatively dangerous. There are many ways to measure ability, reliability, stability, and safety potential. None is perfect but most are better than arbitrary numeric cutoffs. Let’s catch up with the 21st century.

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