WASHINGTON—The nation's largest pilots union decided Thursday to end its long fight against raising its members' mandatory retirement age from 60, clearing a major obstacle to allowing captains to keep flying until they're 65.
The executive board of the 60,000-member Air Line Pilots Association voted with an 80 percent margin to focus instead on influencing regulators' plans to allow pilots or co-pilots to fly until 65 as long as the other person in the cockpit is younger than 60.
"ALPA pilots will be fully engaged in shaping any rule change," said the union's president, Capt. John Prater.
Rep. Robin Hayes, R-N.C., said he thought the development would give momentum to a bill he'd proposed to lift the retirement age, because it would ease opposition from union supporters in the Democratic-controlled Congress.
About six pilots a day are forced to retire because of the age restriction, said Hayes, himself a pilot with a commercial rating.
The International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency that regulates air travel, implemented a rule last November that permits pilots up to age 65 to fly as long as their co-pilots are younger than 60. That means that pilots employed by foreign carriers can fly in and out of the United States until they're 65 but those who work for U.S. carriers can't.
"We want the same rights to work in our country as other people," said George Simmons, a pilot with US Airways.
The notion of allowing older pilots to fly has been discussed almost since the age 60 limit was imposed in 1959.
Pilot groups have been deeply divided on the issue. Critics worry that a new retirement date would affect pension benefits and that younger pilots would have to wait longer for the most desirable routes and schedules afforded to pilots with more seniority.
Advocates of the change say there's no credible evidence that it's less safe for older pilots to fly.
ALPA said the ground shifted on the issue in January, when the head of the Federal Aviation Administration announced that the "excuses of the past don't cut it anymore."
Prompted by the international decision, Administrator Marion Blakey announced that the United States should follow suit because "experience counts."
"It's an added measure of safety," she said in a speech to the National Press Club.
FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said previous studies on older-pilot safety were inconclusive and that recent data from the international aviation community supported the theory that pilots with the most experience have fewer mishaps.
The FAA can't change the age rule without going through an official rulemaking process, and that could take more than two years.