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Think Twice Why Senior Citizens Should Fly

December 11, 2001
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We all talk about passing the workforce torch to an older generation -- thegrowing numbers of senior citizens in the workplace. If our society is going toreally accept that fact, let's start by allowing senior citizens to be in chargeof our lives when we are the most vulnerable. Let's let them fly airplanes.

    You see, people over 60 aren't allowed to pilot commercial planes. It's arule that hasn't been updated since 1959.

    "It's long overdue, of course," Dallas pilot Bert Yetman tells me.Yetman, 68, is suing the FAA for not letting him and 68 other pilots fly. Eachof the pilots has received a "superphysical" from a panel of doctors,and a clean bill of mental and physical health.

    I think Yetman's right, and here's why.

    A different era. Spokesperson Alison Duquette tells me the FAA has no plansto change the Age 60 Rule. "However, the agency is always open to any newscientific research."

    Here's some, Alison: In 1960, the average life expectancy at birth was only69.7 years. By 1998, life expectancy had risen to 76.7 and 60-year-olds wereexpected to live another 21 years.

    Medical advancements are enabling younger pilots with serious medicalproblems -- from multiple bypasses to alcoholism -- to fly planes. Are thesepeople any healthier than the 61-year-old who almost beat me in a half-marathonlast month? Heck, John Glenn has been studied more than almost any other humanbeing on earth, and NASA sent him into outer space at 76.

    Experience counts. I recently flew from Orange County, Calif. to Cincinnati,and the plane ran into turbulence (that's a scary storm to you and me). Let'sthink about who I wanted in the cockpit. Some doofus I went to college with adecade ago who's been flying commercial jets for two years? Or a captain mymother's age, who's been through 250 storms worse than this one? Judgmentcounts, baby, especially when my life is in your wings.

    Plenty of tests. To fly a commercial plane, you have to get a physical eachyear. And then another. You have to conduct a simulator ride. And then another.On top of that, the government occasionally does spot checks, showing up at thecheck-in line to join you on the flight. If we need more proficiency tests,let's add them. But chronological age shouldn't be one of the criteria.

    A labor shortage. You may be thinking, "Is the lack of employees (inthis case, pilots) really a good enough reason to compromise safety?" Thinkagain. The lack of employees has been exacerbated by the Age 60 Rule. Thisforces airlines to lower their standards by more quickly promoting inexperiencedpilots to the captain position.

    Experts from every continent have expressed at least some support -- eitherwritten or oral -- for raising the age limit. Even the Civil Aviation MedicineAssociation, which the FAA has licensed to give physicals to pilots, hasexpressed support for a change. So has the EEOC, AARP, and the NationalInstitutes of Health.

    So who in tarnation is left on the side of the Age 60 Rule? You guessed it --the union.

    The Air Line Pilots Association, which once favored higher age limits, nowdoesn't want to tinker with the Age 60 Rule. The group believes that legislationwould cramp the opportunities for rapid promotion to captain for its youngermembers (the median age is 42). In Washington, D.C., the pilots' union shellsout a lot of dough. It spent $400,000 lobbying in 1999, and in the 1999-2000election cycle forked over at least $870,000 in political donations. It wields alot of power.

    The balance of power is going to have to change. After all, we're soon goingto have to meld the workforces of two very different generations.

    We'll never get there at this rate if we are more comfortable putting ourlives in the hands of inexperienced employees who happen to be 30. I'll take ahealthy and wise pilot twice that age any day.


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