The career advisor
Q: All this talk about the pilot shortage is now obsolete. With the Age 60 rule gone, airline hiring will come to a halt. In other words, all those airline wannabes out there just had their career path destroyed. A retraction is in order.--Mark, Woodstock, Illinois
A: That's pretty brutal commentary from a guy who flies for a major airline and who could benefit from the just-enacted age-65 rule. But, is there any truth to his rhetoric? Maybe, just a little. First, what does the new law say? In the FAA's own language:
Effective last night [December 13, 2007], the Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act allows both pilots on a domestic flight to be up to age 65. For international flights, one pilot may be up to age 65 provided the other pilot is under age 60, consistent with the November 2006 International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) standard.
While the law is not retroactive, airlines do have the option to rehire pilots who are under age 65. The rehiring of pilots is not mandatory and is the decision of each airline.
In January 2007, the FAA announced that it would raise the retirement age for commercial pilots to 65. The mandatory federal rulemaking process would have taken 18 months to two years. The FAA took a renewed look at its longstanding rule in September 2006 with the help of aviation industry and medical experts who provided the agency with valuable insight and analysis. The "Age 60 Rule" had been in effect since 1959.
The International Civil Aviation Organization's adoption of an age 65 limit was the catalyst that prompted the FAA to change the rule. The international community includes commercial pilots older than 60 who are flying safely. The FAA also received more than 6,000 public comments, and the majority of the public and the aviation community supported raising the age to 65.
Of course, the million-dollar question is, "What impact will the rule have on the current hiring binge?" Nobody knows for sure. There are many pilots whose pensions have been decimated in recent airline restructurings who must continue working. Others will welcome the chance to hang it up at 60. And an unknown number of pilots have already reached 60 but just might reapply. Those pilots would have to start from the bottom, which is not an attractive idea.
Here's what is being predicted at two airlines. Of regional carrier Horizon Air's 700 pilots, 14 will turn 60 next year, said spokesman Mike Rose. At Alaska Airlines, about 50 of 1,500 will pass that mark, said the company's Amanda Tobin-Bielawski. Nobody at the airlines knows how many of the 60-year-olds will choose to retire and how many will elect to continue their careers.
AIR Inc.'s Kit Darby estimates that about half of the roughly 3,000 pilots who turn 60 each year will remain in the workforce. But Robert Mann, an aviation consultant, says, "It means five years of stagnation for those who expected to move on when older people retired." This could trickle down to the regional airlines.
Here's my take on it. In 2007, nearly 12,000 pilots will have been hired into the airline industry, and the best estimate is that another 12,000 will be recruited in 2008. But, let's double Darby's numbers. Presume that 6,000 pilots will reach 60 (nearly 10 percent of airline pilots) and half of those--3,000--continue working. There still will be 9,000 jobs to be filled. Further, if a straw poll of some of my senior airline colleagues means anything, most say they will not stay beyond age 63 if given the opportunity to fly past 60.
I predict that, at the worst, the hiring boom may throttle back just a bit temporarily since the new law will merely postpone the hiring bubble created by mandatory retirement, not burst it. However, there is another reality that is being overlooked: the dropout rate of pilots disenchanted with regional airline life, conditions, and pay. Retention is a serious problem for many regional carriers, and fewer people are interested in learning to fly or willing to invest a fortune for minimal near-term payback.
There are very few sure bets in life, but the continuing need for flight talent for the foreseeable future is a bet that I would take any day.
Send us your career question and we'll answer the best ones here. Sorry, but we are not able to provide individual responses. Wayne Phillips is an airline transport pilot with a Boeing 737 type rating. He is a B-737 instructor and operates the Airline Training Orientation Program in association with Continental Airlines. He is an aviation safety consultant in Michigan and speaker for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.