Congress votes to extend pilots' retirement age to 65

The Senate approved a measure late Wednesday allowing airline pilots to continue flying past age 60.

Final passage of the bill first approved unanimously on Tuesday by the House answers pleas by older pilots who have lost their pensions because of airline bankruptcies. The bill now awaits President Bush's signature.

The measure lets pilots fly until they reach 65, provided they pass medical tests taken twice a year. It also mandates that airlines perform additional proficiency checks on pilots over 60.

Pilot groups who had pushed for the change estimate that 150 to 210 pilots a month are forced to retire when they reach their 60th birthday. "Each day that passes without raising the retirement age to 65, approximately five of our senior, most experienced pilots will be forced to retire," said Transportation Committee Chairman James Oberstar, D-Minn.

Some pilots have for years called for extending the time that they can fly, but the issue had been opposed by a majority of pilots.

The retirement age was seen as a way of ensuring that jobs existed for younger pilots in an era when flight crews were well paid and expected generous retirements.

But the numerous bankruptcy reorganizations among large airlines in recent years created a dramatically different environment.

Pilots at carriers such as US Airways lcc and United Airlines uaua not only received cuts in pay, but many also lost the bulk of their pensions.

"That's a huge driver," said Capt. Paul Emens, a Southwest Airlines luv pilot who heads a group called Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination. "They want to get back what they lost."

Pete Janhunen, spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), the nation's largest pilots union, urged President Bush to sign the bill if approved.

ALPA had opposed changes in the retirement age for decades but reversed its position this year and worked closely with legislators on the measure, Janhunen said.

The age-60 rule had been in place since 1960.

After the International Civil Aviation Organization, which sets international flight rules, last year allowed pilots to fly until they reach 65, momentum built quickly to change the rule in the USA.

The Federal Aviation Administration announced in January that it would propose raising the age to 65 but cautioned that it could take years before taking effect.

The law would take effect immediately if it is signed by Bush. It would let airlines rehire pilots who had been forced to retire at 60 in recent years, but those pilots would lose their seniority.

Bill Voss, president of the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation, said his group was satisfied that there are no safety risks to allowing pilots to fly later in life.

Several countries, such as Australia, have no age restriction for airline pilots so long as they can pass medical and flying exams, Voss said.

Contributing: The Associated Press

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