Mark R. Twombly is a charter pilot on a Citation II based in Southwest Florida.
With the stroke of a presidential pen, years of FAA stonewalling have finally come to an end. Last December, Congress quickly passed, and President Bush quickly signed, a law that revised what had been the intractable FAA regulation requiring airline pilots to retire at age 60. Now, if you fly under Part 121 or under Part 135 of the federal aviation regulations in an aircraft with more than nine seats that is involved in scheduled service, you can keep on flying until the day you turn 65. That’s made a lot of airline pilots in their 50s very happy.
I sought perspective on the issue from two people with insider knowledge. My brother Gerry is with FedEx. My brother Steven works for Delta Air Lines. How do they feel about extending their careers another five years? Not surprisingly, both are pretty doggone pleased about it, but for somewhat different reasons that mostly have to do with timing and luck. In these uncertain times for major airlines, luck and timing seem to control how smooth or turbulent an airline pilot’s career will be.
In 1990 Gerry was a corporate pilot when he found himself riding the leading edge of a FedEx hiring spree. After starting life there as a Boeing 727 flight engineer, he’s worked his way up to McDonnell Douglas MD-11 captain flying international routes. It’s nice work, and FedEx is a good place for a pilot to be, especially if you can put in 25 years.
Gerry would have 21 years at FedEx if he had to retire at age 60. Now, if he goes to 65, which he has no doubt he will do, he’ll have 26 years with the company. “I’ll get absolutely full retirement. That’s a biggie,” he says.
“I really enjoy what I’m doing, and I think I’m in pretty good health,” he explains. “I don’t have a second business, and I don’t have a hard plan for when I retire. So I wouldn’t be ready to retire at age 60.”
Along with being able to build a larger nest egg, there’s the salutary effect the additional time will have on Gerry’s seniority among his fellow aviators. Up to five more years of seniority will arm him with considerable power to wield when bidding trips. “FedEx is such a dynamic and changing company as far as the flying goes,” he says. “We’re pushing into China, getting different equipment and new routes. It’s pretty interesting flying. I’m going to be very senior at age 65, so it makes for a pretty good deal.”
Gerry has always hoped the Age-60 rule would fall in time for him to benefit—now it has. He’s a happy guy. “All these young dudes, they’ll just have to put up with me for another five years,” he laughs. “I like that. I like that a lot.”
Steven, on the other hand, initially was not a proponent of changing the rule. Steven was an F-15 pilot in the Air Force, and when he left from active duty in 1991 at age 35, Delta Air Lines hired him. He was positioned more on the trailing edge of Delta hiring, and of course had no idea what lay in store for his employer.
When I got into the airlines, I thought it was a really great job,” he says. “I didn’t think there was any better in aviation. Everyone has different reasons to want to fly for the airlines. Mine was mostly about the flying as well as the family time. I very much enjoyed the job, but I was looking forward to being out at 60, maybe even before.”
If he chose to stay until reaching age 60, he would have 25 years with the company and be eligible for maximum retirement benefits. If he decided to leave before that, he would see a reduction in his benefits, but he was prepared to accept that. However, extending the mandatory retirement age to 65 would have resulted in a far greater impact on his pension if he left before reaching age 60, so he was “totally against” changing the rule.
That was then. A lot has happened since.
Like other so-called legacy carriers, Delta has suffered a tumultuous few years recently, culminating in bankruptcy. (The company has since emerged from that condition.) The impact on Delta employees was dramatic. Steven, like other Delta pilots, saw his pay cut by 47 percent, and what he calls “great, great” pensions just disappeared. So, with no pension subject to a change to an Age-65 rule, he no longer had a reason to oppose it. In fact, the new rule works in his favor.
“I’m totally for it,” he says. “It’s given me the option. I can choose to stay and continue to work, but if there is not a monetary reason to stay, I can leave without any financial penalties.”
Despite the tumult, quality of life remains Steven’s job focus, as it was when he was hired. “For a lot of pilots, it’s usually about money,” he says. “Those are the people who are incredibly vocal, unhappy, and defiant about the way things are now. I get caught up in the money thing, too, but then I always fall back on what my priorities are; my perspective. For me, not much has changed.”