Nancy Aldrich has a plaque sitting on an 18-foot, floor-to-ceiling bookcase full of her most cherished items, which dominates her living room. The plaque reads, "A Superior Pilot is one who uses her Superior Judgment to avoid situations which would require her Superior Skill!"
That plaque, given by a friend several years ago, sums up its pilot-owners feelings about the controversial retirement rule. “I think we lose a lot of experience when we force pilots out at age 60,” says Aldrich, who was a United captain from 1991 until December 1999. “I think experience enhances safety.”
Considering the record numbers of passengers, the forced retirement of 36,000 major and regional airline pilots in the next decade, and lingering concerns about a serious shortage of experienced pilots, the age-60 rule may be more relevant than ever.
In March, the Federal Aviation Administration forecast that commercial passenger miles would increase an average of 4.6 percent a year through 2011, compared with the number of major and regional airline pilots growing by only 3.1 percent annually, to 198,100 pilots over that time period. In the nearer term, the FAA predicts that passenger totals will continue to rise to 900 million by 2007, from 574 million just four years ago.
More flights mean more pilots: Airline employment has already seen a record-shattering growth streak over the past six years. In 1996, U.S. airlines hired 9,900 pilots; by 1998, more than 14,000 pilots were hired; this year, airlines expect to hire about 19,000 pilots. According to a recent study by the Air Transport Association of America, the nation’s oldest and largest airline trade organization, the major and national carriers collectively project a near-doubling of pilots needed in the next 10 to 15 years.
At the same time, an unprecedented wave of pilots who started their careers in the 1960s — many of them Vietnam War veterans — will be forced to retire, peaking in 2007. The latest FAA statistics show 55,255 certified pilots in the 55-59 age bracket; of those, nearly 15,000 fall under the scheduled, ticketed “air transport pilot” category flying the major and regional carriers. And almost 75,000 pilots (21,000 of those in this category) are between 50 and 54.
That means that within a decade, the major and regional airlines subject to the age-60 rule will lose a quarter of their collective work force, as they scramble to recruit new pilots. Currently, there are some 635,000 certified pilots across all age groups, of whom nearly 138,000 fly the major and regional airlines.
Turnover sparks drop in hiring requirements
Even if the onset of less-experienced pilots does not result in accidents or casualties, there are already signs that the system is cracking. Airlines have had to resort to canceling flights, reducing schedules — and, perhaps most worrying, weakening hiring standards — in order to cope with the pilot shortage.
“The airlines and their passengers continue to grow increasingly frustrated with the overwhelming number of air traffic control delays that they encounter day in and day out at our nations airports,” Carol Hallett, president and CEO of the Air Transport Association trade group of 23 major carriers, said in July about summer delays.
Regional airline managers grumble that attrition rates are running between 60 percent and 100 percent, and many commercial carriers major and regional alike have had to lower flight-time and other hiring standards.
Several regional carriers, including American Airlines-owned American Eagle, have dropped their minimum experience requirements for first officers to 1,000 hours in total flying time (with 100 or 200 hours in multi-engine aircraft), from a previous 1,500 to 2,000 hours (300-500 multi-engine). A number of other companies have completely dropped their flight-time requirements and instead evaluate applicants on a case-by-case basis, Kit Darby, president of AIR Inc., an Atlanta-based career information service for pilots and airlines, told The Public i. And some have reduced or dropped their four-year college degree requirements, aviation experts say.
Even some of the majors have dropped standards in order to attract new applicants. Southwest Airlines, for example, no longer requires pilots to possess certification for flying a 737 at the time of their interview, although they have six months to obtain it before they can start flying for the airline.
The perpetual need for pilots also means that first officers are getting promoted faster into the captains chair. Experts say that at the major carriers, new hires — who have to start out as flight engineers or co-pilots, regardless of previous experience are moving into the left seat in as little as three years; it used to be an eight- to 10-year wait.
Lost your brains
“The shortage of fully qualified command pilots that’s what’s really hurting, because I have all these [over-60] pilots, and the FAA says You can’t fly, you’ve lost your brains,” complains Hal McNicol Jr., founder and president of Flight Crews International, a pilot placement agency at Los Angeles International.
A former Navy pilot who turned commercial (he flew the Rolling Stones, John Denver and Elton John), McNicol describes the Air Line Pilots Association, with its 58,000 dues-paying members, as “lobbyists, just like the tobacco organization.”
“To them, its just a matter of business. Two-thirds of their members are first and second officers [co-pilots and flight engineers], and only one-third are captains,” McNicol says. “So the majority are junior ones who want to get rid of the captain as soon as possible . . . (to) make more money. It used to take years and years to become captain. Right now, because the airlines are expanding so fast, it takes only two to four years.”
Although the pay scale varies by carrier, type of aircraft and years of experience, aviation experts say captains on major carriers make between $150,000 and $300,000, with a co-pilots pay lagging behind the captains by at least 30 percent. Salaries for flying commuter planes are drastically lower, with captains making as little as $30,000. McNicol says the “average” captain on a small plane earns $42,000 a year, with a co-pilot making $31,200.
Aldrich, the former United captain, said that in the long run, even the younger pilots would benefit from overturning the age-60 rule because the faster bump up to captain is marginal, compared to the potential lengthening of their careers.
“I think they (the Air Line Pilots Association) are missing a bet, because if they kept pilots until they’re 65, it’d be just an initial bump in the road. After 12 months, wed be in the same boat, in terms of supply and demand. They’re always short of pilots,” Aldrich said from her Erie, Colo., home. “Even the young guys should want to postpone becoming captain if it means they can have another five years added to their career.”
Pilot pool has shrunk, but pilots union denies shortage
Over the past decade, the nationwide pool of certified pilots has shrunk by nearly 80,000, which has prompted the major carriers to raid the regional airlines, and the smaller carriers to poach pilots from flight schools and from private aviation. Meanwhile, the military — which from World War II through the mid-90s churned out approximately 80 percent of major airlines new hires now contributes only 40 percent to 45 percent, according to L. Nicholas Lacey, director of the FAAs flight standards service.
“There are signs that the regional airlines and those feeding the regionals are starting to see high turnover and pilot applicants with declining prior experience,” Lacey testified to the Senate Commerce Committee in July. “However, reducing safety standards or carving out exceptions to established safety standards, in my view, are not appropriate responses.”
Even Air Line Pilot the magazine of the same pilots union that pours millions into politicians campaign chests and fights overturning the age-60 rule ran an article in May 1998 warning that unprecedented numbers of captains would be retiring at the turn of the century and soon after.
“The effects on the air transportation system could be disastrous as a sudden surge of poor-caliber pilots is dragged from the bottom of the system, perhaps all the way to the majors,” Trevor Nash, editor of CAT, the Journal for Civil Aviation Training, wrote in the May 1998 guest commentary. “The real losers will be the air-taxi and regional operators that must fly their aircraft with the pilots the majors cannot attract.”
But the FAAs Lacey, in his testimony to the Senate, stopped short of calling the current situation a shortage, saying, “It is difficult to determine whether this potential rate of growth will ultimately lead to a significant shortage of pilots.”
And in an interview, ALPA spokesman John Mazor dismissed reports of a pilot shortage as a ploy by those pushing for an overturn of the age 60 rule “as a way to get leverage or traction on their issue.” He said the union does not believe the U.S. is currently in the midst of a shortage beyond Alaska “and some of the smaller airlines.”
“A lot of newspapers this year were confusing the shortage of available pilot time at United” with an overall shortage, Mazor said. “United didn’t have enough pilots to cope with the growth in the number of flights; there was not an insufficient shortage in the marketplace.”
Mazor conceded, however, that the pilots association sees “a need to continue to prime the pump of people who want to be pilots . . . We are concerned about where we are going to get pilots in the future; we don’t have a shortage today, but we may have one tomorrow.” He could not provide hiring projections.
No substitute for experience
Buddy Davison, who had to retire from Southwest on Dec. 28, four days before his landmark 60th birthday, says there is a potential safety issue with the smaller, commuter airlines. “As soon as they get their time, they’re coming to the majors. They’re complying with the law, but just barely meeting the minimum,” he said from his Maryland home.
The newly retired pilot described how it used to take six years for a flight engineer to become captain on a small carrier, but now a new hire waits less than 18 months, if even a year: “It used to be 4 to 5,000 hours before you could move to the captains seat — or before the captain could move to a major carrier. Those people are getting hired with the basic license, and as soon as they get their minimum hours, they move on.”
Davison said he is usually accompanied by “sharp, academy-trained,” albeit younger, co-pilots who are little experienced. “I make small corrections and show them stuff, without grabbing the controls. But its not a matter of how sharp you are. There’s just no substitute for experience,” he said.
Jessica Stearns, a former Continental pilot who turned 60 in July, concurred. “For the most part, they’re pretty sharp, but their depth of experience is very limited. You have to be a strong captain to make sure they get things right,” she said. “You gotta double-check and back them up. If you’ve got a more senior co-pilot, you don’t have to do that.” In 1999, for example, Stearns was at the helm of a coast-to-coast flight, passing over the Colorado Rockies, when the autopilot system sensed an increase in wind speed and idled the engines. She said the computer was too slow to kick the power back in once the plane had regained optimal altitude, meaning the engines didn’t spool up fast enough on the descent.
“You need to prevent the computer from over-correcting. What you do with the manual instruments is prevent the engines from ever getting into that idle condition. I might allow them to pull back to 50% of their maximum thrust, but not idle,” she said. “That was something I was never taught in any school, or any simulator.”
Her copilot obviously needed the same lesson from a veteran. “I was able to talk him through what could have potentially been a mistake,” she recalled.
Jay Ward, a just-turned-60 pilot who relies on pilots older than himself to deliver airplanes for his Seattle-based company, asked rhetorically: “Would you rather have a guy who’s physically fit, with 30 to 40 years experience, flying your plane, or someone who’s younger but less experienced?”