Pension Woes Helps Pilots Retirement Age Initiative Gain Steam

May 26, 2005 ( - A several-year-old movement by US airline pilots to get the federally mandated retirement age raised to 65 appears to be gaining strength because of arguments that the extra time would help them make up for money lost to pension cuts.

>With an enormous amount of publicity surrounding United Airlines’ recent move to turn over its pension plans to the private pension plan insurer (See  United, PBGC Hammer Out Plan Takeover Pact ), the notion of giving pilots more time to earn money – and potentially delay stopping work until the industry reaches stronger financial footing – is gaining traction, Bloomberg reported.

>Having more years of a salary would help the pilots make up for pension losses caused by the mostly beleaguered carriers enacting pension cutbacks or turning their programs over to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC), which insures private-sector pensions. Pilots complain that their potential pension income would drop precipitously once a plan goes to the PBGC.

So increasing the retirement age “could be positive” for pensions, said US Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) who sponsored legislation to raise the limit. “If people are able to work a little bit longer, maybe time is in the favor of solvency,” he told Bloomberg. There is a corresponding bill pending in the US House of Representatives as well.

According to the Bloomberg report, backers of the pilot retirement age initiative include carriers such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways that don’t have defined benefit pensions as well as pilots groups. The Southwest Airlines pilot union, with 4,710 members, and a group called  Airline Pilots against Age Discrimination , with members from other airlines, are leading the lobbying effort. The Federal Aviation Administration since 1959 has required that airline pilots retire at age 60.

Larger airlines and their pilot unions oppose a change, Bloomberg said.

“We have some fantastic pilots we’d hate to lose just because they’re turning 60,” Southwest spokeswoman Linda Rutherford told Bloomberg. “There are better ways today to determine a pilot’s ability to continue to fly.” JetBlue also believes an age increase “makes sense,” said Rob Land, the company’s government affairs vice president.

For its part, the FAA, which backs the age-60 rule, will continue to decide the matter unless Congress acts. The rule “has served the industry well,” FAA spokesman Les Dorr told Bloomberg. “There’s just no scientific consensus that would give us a basis for changing that age-60 limit,” he said. The agency has said pilots’ decline in cognitive functions and increased risk of illness over age 60 may have an effect on safety.