CEO of the Cockpit #67: Age is a Four Letter Word

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I always enjoy going to pilot retirement parties because they make me feel so young. Tonight's party was no different. There was the retiree, Paul, who had just gotten off his last flight from Tokyo and was beginning to celebrate his newfound non-captain-ness. Others in the group included the ubiquitous happy family, old pilots who had flown with Paul over the years before they retired, and a smattering of almost-retirement-age pilots like me.

The first thing that goes on when a pilot reaches normal retirement age and has his or her last flight is the wash-down of the airplane from the airport fire department as they taxi in. Many people don't know this, but they actually charge the pilot $100 for this "honor." Then, after pulling up to the gate, the pilot is met by either the local chief pilot or perhaps a more important company official, depending on how much of a reputation the new retiree has.

The first act of the company representative, after congratulating the pilot, is to ask, rather forcefully, for his company ID badge. One minute you are a highly regarded, steely-eyed captain of the skies, entrusted with a huge multi-million dollar jet and the lives of around 300 people, and the next minute you aren't even allowed down to the pilot's bathroom in the company operations area without an escort.

Once the company rep de-badges you, the party ensues at whatever Ramada or Hyatt has been chosen for the event. Three hours or so later it is over and you shuffle off to obscurity, an ever-shrinking pension check (assuming your company still has a pension fund) and night after night after endless, layover-free night with your spouse.

If you have somehow managed to hang onto spouse number one, you have a chance of financial survival into your twilight years. If you have bought two or three spouses houses during your career, as most pilots have, you are monetarily screwed.

I'm not complaining about any of it. It is the circle of life, Simba.

Kick the Fires and Light the Tires

Boeing 727 Landing

Paul came over, shook my hand and said, "Well, it has been one hell of a ride."

I enjoyed flying with you, Paul. Even though your passing means that I'll move up a number, I have to tell you that you'll be sorely missed. Especially by the guys at the tire re-cap shop. Nobody could take tread off a main gear tire like you.

Paul laughed because he remembered what I was talking about. Roughly 20 years ago, Paul and I were wrestling a 727 onto the ground in DFW during a pretty rough weather day. The landing cost the company three main-gear tires because we entered a pretty good skid making the high-speed turnoff after our engineer reached up and turned the anti-skid off too early.

It was pretty common knowledge that Paul was going on to another job: Teaching Airbus pilots in his home town of Miami. With the current non-state of our pension, nobody retiring can really afford to retire. Most move on to other jobs and some have military pensions to fall back on but hardly anybody goes off to play golf anymore.

"I guess you heard that I'm going to work in the steep-turn academy down at home in Miami," said Paul. "It's a pity it looks like the FAA is going to change the retirement age right after I have to leave this job."

Would you have stayed if the age was 65 right now?

"I'd have to," Paul said. "I loved the idea of retiring at 60 when I was 50, but with the demise of our retirements, I'm going to have to work either way. I'd much rather work as the number two captain on the 777 instead of driving my airport car to a simulator job that pays much less."

The Big Seniority Ladder

Paul's statement and the reality of it will make junior airline pilots worldwide a sadder, more cynical bunch. You see, there used to be a sort of system. You began very junior and did all the crap trips and had all the less-than-exciting piloting jobs on the airline. Then, as pilots retired at age 60, slots opened up above you and you moved up to higher paying positions that didn't work on Christmas and Super Bowl Sunday.

There was a kind of symmetry to it. You knew you were suffering a little bit when you were a dog-assed junior, but there was hope ... the geezers had to leave.

Now it looks likely that the official retirement age will move up to 65, which means five more years of waiting for the junior guys and five more years of hoping for an airline piloting job for people not even interviewed yet.

The Safety Argument

There is no doubt, in my mind anyway, that the well-worn safety argument about old pilots doesn't hold water like it used to (and that wasn't just a crack at old captains and their ability to hold their water). Today's technology, combined with a mandatory co-pilot in the cockpit, makes the chances of a captain croaking and killing all of his or her passengers mighty slim. As a matter of fact, there recently was a Continental captain who "went to the light" while in flight and all it resulted in was a diversion to some cow town. He was younger than 60. There goes your safety argument.

I've flown with some pretty mentally weak old captains during my engineer and co-pilot days, but I've flown with equally dotty young co-pilots since I made captain.

Personally, I always looked upon the age 60 rule as a bonus of being an airline pilot. You got to retire five years early at full retirement pay. Of course, with bankruptcies and other manipulations of the airline labor forces, that system is no longer viable. Another loss for the profession, I think.

Layover Love

Paul's son, Nicholas, who is also an airline pilot, came up to have a few words with us old farts. Nick is currently a junior co-pilot on the 737 out of New York. Cute kid.

"I never thought I'd see the day when my Dad stopped going on trips every week," Nick said. "How long do you think Mom will stay married to you now that you'll be home every night?

"That's not the question," Paul said, half-jokingly. "What will Shirley, my layover wife, think of all this and will Mom let me have her over for weekends?"

Paul wasn't kidding, although I was surprised he was so open about it with Nick. Like many international pilots, Paul had hooked up with a senior momma years ago. He and Shirley have been an item for over 10 years. They were senior enough to bid their trips together, layover together, and operate a little layover marriage through the years.

Nick looked a little shocked. Not because he didn't know about Shirley. Hell, I'm sure his Mom knew about Shirley. It's just that Nick hadn't thought about the impending "retirement divorce" his Dad was facing.

Seeing the confusion and concern on his son's face, Paul helped us both out.

"Don't worry, you two ... Nick's Mom pretty much knows about this and has chosen to ignore it over the past 10 years. I don't see her changing her attitude about it now. Shirley is retiring this month too, and I plan on going out on a lot of fishing and hunting trips, if you catch my drift."

Still, I said, if you had that extra five years and could fly to age 65, you would have the ability to save enough money for a real retirement and would save a fortune in motel bills with Shirley.

"Yeah," Paul said wistfully, "But then again, five more years of all nighters from Narita and I'd probably be dead before I made it to 65. Also, Shirley might find a younger pilot, like you, by then."

Not this cowboy. I only intend to buy one wife one house. Plus, my sainted wife is the only person in the world who would put up with me. I'm surprised you found two women that didn't want to kill you.

"I was surprised too," said Paul.

The big retirement party was just shifting into second gear as I moved away from Paul and Nick to talk with other pilots. Vice presidents were as plentiful at this party as lawyers at a fender bender. Paul was a well-known and respected pilot and the company will be a lesser place without him.

I don't know the answer about the age 60 issue. I know that ALPA has changed its stripes on it after being unsuccessful at saving various pensions. I know a lot of pilots really want to fly into old age and I know that very young pilots who signed up under the original age-60 seniority system resent the whole thing.

Once we reach age 40, almost all of us wear glasses. Blood pressure can be controlled. CRM can weed out the senile and erectile dysfunction medication can keep layover marriages going on well into a pilot's 70s. Still, I can't help looking back in fondness at the old system. A system that demanded that you take the money and leave before you got too old to enjoy it.

Want to read more from AVweb's CEO of the Cockpit? Check out the rest of his columns.