Forty years ago, when ALPA still championed the rights of all pilots to remain employed, former ALPA president Clarence Sayen challenged FAA Administrator Elwood Quesada to justify his hasty decision to enact the Rule. Quesada responded with 41 highly questionable articles culled from the medical archives of the 1950's, the majority of these having been published decades earlier. In addition to being astonishingly outdated, these articles described characteristics of the general population and not of airline pilots.
Medical evidence was therefore manipulated. A closer examination of the "facts" would have revealed that there was much that was not applicable to the situation at hand. And if these data were years out of date more than two generations ago, one can only imagine that the picture that they present is even more inaccurate today than it was in 1959. In countless other fields, 60-year-old men and women pursue their careers without any considerations of sudden death or incapacitation. Piloting a plane is not a physically strenuous job. So overexertion cannot be the concern. A bus driver and a railroad engineer both take the lives of many people into their hands. Yet few people suggest that either of these professionals would suddenly dropped it during the performance of their duties thereby killing or injuring dozens or even hundreds of innocent people. So why a commercial pilot?
This brings us to the second argument, that of Loss of Cognitive Function. Each of us knows that many of the very old do indeed suffer from some loss of cognitive function. A certain amount of loss of cognitive function is in fact normal with advancing age. Who does not have an elderly relative whose memory is not what it used to be? But when one thinks in these terms, one is not usually thinking of a 60-year-old, but of someone in the age range of eighty or ninety. It has been a very long time since sixty was considered "old." It may be argued, however, that flying a plane is such a "cognitive-intensive" activity that even the slightest lapse in judgment, or decline in cognitive ability, might result in a potentially serious accident. Yet when deciding the fate of an individual who has performed well, even admirably, over a period of many years, it is worth the time and effort to see if these "assumptions" truly hold for pilots. It must also be remembered that the contemporary world of aviation is an extremely technological world. Today's pilots fly not by the "seat of their pants" as in the first years of flight, but are assisted by many and varied forms of sophisticated technology:
The development of a means to identify and understand the cognitive tasks associated with instrument flight (e.g., maintaining desired vertical flight path) is a key element when evaluating head-up display design alternatives. For example, a less detailed display design alternative, such as instruments that lack gradation marks, could require greater attention to the task they support. During fiscal year 2003, researchers combined a visual scanning model with pilot eye-tracking data during an instrument approach conducted in a simulator and were better able to predict pilot cognitive task performance.
Recent Accomplishment: Researchers found that the structure of the model provides insight into demands placed on the pilot. For example, more experienced pilots exhibited simpler models than pilots with less experience.
Many of the so-called cognitive problems faced by older pilots are actually experienced across the spectrum of age and experience. Many, in fact, can even be traced directly to the extremely high usage of computers and other electronic instruments in modern aircraft. The effects of simple boredom are illustrated by the following table:
Given the large numbers of pilots who find their work to be frequently "boring," it cannot possibly be concluded that it is only the "elderly" who are so afflicted. Additionally, research confirms that, in general, older individuals are healthier, and thus more in possession of good mental faculties, than their counterparts of forty years ago:
The improvement in general health and abilities of those aged between 55 and 65 in general may imply that mandatory retirement at these ages is unfair for a growing number of workers who retain the ability to execute their jobs competently but cannot transfer their skills to other occupations -- such as pilots and air-traffic controllers.
Lastly, it is the fear of "Adverse Health Events" that must be addressed. Again, we are here dealing with a long-held perception that the older the individual, the less likely he or she is to be in good health. In particular, in this case, we are talking about specific events such as a heart attack suffered while at the controls of a passenger jet. The immediate gut reaction, of course, is to say that this is an unwarrantable danger - the lives of hundreds of people are being put in jeopardy for the sake of one pilot. Supporters of eliminating - or revising upwward the age for - mandatory retirement cite the fact that,
Scientific knowledge has advanced considerably since the age-60 rule was implemented 40 years ago, and that outdated information was used to justify its introduction. Medical technology is such that pilots can be more effectively monitored to gauge their fitness to fly.
However, the very same work carries opposing testimony:
Pilots aged 60 and older might have a greater likelihood of experiencing incapacitation, either sudden or subtle, which would place the aircraft and passengers at risk.
Pilots aged 60 and older might experience decrements in cognitive performance resulting in dangerous judgement errors that could compromise safety.
Medical and psychological testing procedures may not identify pilots aged 60 and older who might be at risk for adverse health events.
Still, such arguments seem more assumptions than fact. Given the great advances in medical technology over the past forty years, and the greatly increased health of persons aged sixty and over, it seems that automatically disqualifying individuals at that age is counter-intuitive, and done more out of cost considerations than in the interests of safety.
The mandatory retirement age for pilots of civilian aircraft was enacted in 1959 based on what were supposedly considerations of passenger safety. Even at the time, it was widely believed that the real considerations were economic. Young, inexperienced pilots come much cheaper than pilots with many years' flight experience. Today, the economic gulf is even greater between the old and the young. With the passing away of large corporations' "cradle-to-grave" insurance plans, older employees - in this case pilots - frequently represent expensive "albatrosses" around the necks of corporate accountants eager to crunch the numbers ever more tightly. Furthermore, many of the arguments against lifting the age 60 retirement requirement, while not without merit, seem grounded in the conditions of another time. Few would argue that today's sixty-year-old is, on the average, healthier than his counterpart of two generations ago. As well, contemporary aircraft are so largely run by machines that the opportunity for pilot error that results in catastrophe is certainly less than what it was forty years ago.
The three primary health considerations that factor into the mandatory retirement argument - incapacitation, loss of cognitive ability, and adverse health events - are, without doubt, real and grave concerns. But to the extent that these are age-related concerns depend upon "how old" in a biological sense an individual truly is. A century ago, an individual in his or her fifties was considered old, and as such, was seen as already being especially prone to the ravages of ill-health. A simple look at an old photograph will reveal the truth of this statement. Yet today's individuals in the same age cohort are hardly considered to be old and decrepit. A great many people in this age category run marathons, exercise frequently, and perform many other feats of physical endurance. Even more so, persons in this age group, up to and including those who have reached their sixtieth birthdays, are not normally regarded as suffering from the mental effects of old age. In the contemporary industrialized world, a sixty-year-old normally enjoys the same level of mental acuity as those much younger. While one can argue that the typical seventy-five-year-old, for example, does indeed suffer somewhat from the adverse effects of aging, the same cannot be said of the sixty-year-old.
Thus, it can be reasonably argued that mandatory retirement at age sixty should be eliminated for commercial airline pilots. Men and women do lose some of their cognitive and physical powers as they grow older. but, the age at which this typically occurs is certainly greater than it was more than forty years ago. Clearly, it cannot be said that there is no age at which perhaps a majority of persons will no longer have the ability to perform highly-precise and physically demanding activities. The age, however, at which this occurs should be determined by careful scientific examination and not mere hearsay. The government must conduct large, and scientifically, and medically…