"Experience Counts"
Marion C. Blakey, Washington, DC
January 30, 2007

National Press Club


Good afternoon, and thank you for inviting me. And I bring greetings from Secretary Peters. We’re delighted to have the National Press Club focus on transportation and aviation. You know, there’s a Latin phrase, carpe diem, that tells us to seize the day. It’s used a lot, and it’s really an admonition to make the most of the moment, to make sure that opportunity is not lost. But sometimes, it’s not all that easy.

First, a rough spot or two. When Alexander Graham Bell was trying to sell the telephone, the Postal Service and Western Union turned him down. The Swiss invented the digital watch, only to reject something that “didn’t have gears.” Texas Instruments and the Japanese, however, thought the digital watch just might catch on.

There are successes. On the low-tech end, a fellow by the name of Earle Dickson, a cotton buyer, had the idea to put little pieces of cotton on surgical tape. His employer, Johnson & Johnson, seized the day.

Aviation has had more than its share of those kind of moments. I’d have to say that the Wrights are at the top of that list. Going from bicycles to wings is a huge leap, and not just in technology. Certainly Burt Rutan would have to be considered someone who didn’t let the moment pass. He believed the timing was right to show that the common man has a place in space. I was there in the Mojave when he did it with Space Ship One. At a significantly lower altitude, Vern Raburn and his Eclipse and Peter Maurer and his Diamond D believe it’s time to change point-to-point travel.

Today is another one of those “seize the moment” days — for commercial aviation, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FAA. It’s time to close the book on Age 60. The retirement age for airline pilots needs to be raised. So, the FAA will propose a new rule to allow pilots to fly until they are 65.

This has been a long time in the making. About a couple of months shy of 47 years, in fact. But who’s counting? Well, I can say with certainty that these days, everyone’s counting. And each one of them has my email address.

More than most, though, this is an issue that requires context, so bear with me while I take you all back in history. Fact is that even in the 1950s, pilot retirement age was a bone of contention. When the airlines back in the day were forcing pilots to retire, the union took legal action. Arbitrators ruled for the pilots each time.

In what still is a matter of debate as to why the government made Age 60 the limit, American Airlines prevailed on the FAA for a rule. Perhaps it was the strike that occurred. Maybe it was just a move to get beyond the issue. The man in charge at American, C.R. Smith, wrote to Pete Quesada, the administrator at the time. He wrote, and I quote:  “It appears obvious that there must be some suitable age for retirement.”

That was February 1959. Less than four months later, June 27 to be exact, the Federal Aviation Agency drew a new line in the sand and issued a proposed rule titled “Maximum Age Limitations for Pilots.” When you’re 60, your career as an airline pilot would be over.

In what today would be considered warp speed — less than nine months — it became the law of the land. The basis for the decision was safety — that the safety of air commerce was indeed in the public interest. That’s hard to argue. The FAA said that using older pilots is a safety concern. As people age, their skills degrade.

That’s the history. And that is why we’re here today. It’s now a different day and age. The issues of experience, harmonization, and let’s face it — equity — all have to be addressed.

Since I’ve come to the agency, one of my big areas of emphasis has been global harmonization. It’s a big sky, and unless it’s a seamless sky, we all lose. If you have rules that directly controvert that principle, especially a rule that becomes increasingly more difficult to defend, it’s time for a change.

Let me read a letter I received about two months ago from a pilot on the West Coast. I’m quoting here:  “I assert that my skills and experience enhance aviation safety and thus serve the public interest. I have over 26,000 hours without violations and am an FAA-certified check airman on the Boeing 747-400. I hold an ATP, current gold seal flight instructor, flight engineer … In addition, I have a first class medical certification with no limitations.”

I’ve got to tell you, on its face, he’s making the right point. This is a guy you want flying your plane. Yet, he’s about to time out in our system.

There are another two stories worth repeating. One in particular, you all know. When John Glenn joined a space shuttle crew at age 77, he proved that there’s a place in space for experience. And for those of you who remember the Sioux City crash in 1989, the United Captain, Alfred C. Haynes, saved 186 people that day. He flew a DC-10 that had lost hydraulics, using a throttle to make turns. Somewhat like taking the steering wheel off your car and trying to steer with the gas pedal. At the time, Captain Haynes was 59. I’m standing here today to tell you that it was a sad day when Captain Haynes turned 60. This rule drew a line in the sand and aviation lost heroes like Captain Haynes because of it.

So ICAO’s move to allow a pilot under 65 to continue to fly was the right thing to do. The Joint Aviation Authorities in Europe already made the step, too. And in the interest of harmonization, it’s time for us to do so as well. The rule we intend to propose will be parallel to the ICAO standard — either pilot or co-pilot may fly up to age 65 as long as the other crewmember is under 60. It is our intent that this new rule will apply to pilots who have not yet reached 60 by the time the rule goes into effect.

Why the change? First, medically speaking, there are no scientific studies to say, “Don’t do this.” In fact, as we’d all agree, medical science is in the place where we’re all living longer and healthier. And that includes the cockpit.

Back in 1959, the average lifespan in the U.S. was 69 and a half. Today, it’s more than 77. And if there’s a group of employees in better shape than airline pilots, generally speaking, they’re not coming to mind right now — well, maybe the Bears and the Colts.

Plus, there’s the added protection of a medical exam every six months specifically tailored to aviation, conducted by a professional who’s specifically trained to address the kind of medical conditions that’d affect the ability to fly.

For the doubters among us, there’s also the check ride. Every six months, these folks are tested by a taskmaster who makes damn sure that the i’s are dotted and the t’s are crossed. Our check airmen are the cream of the crop in the pilot community and their job is to make sure that all pilots are up to the job. Given our safety record — we’re in one of the safest periods in history — I’d have to say that the pilots and those who check their performance are getting it done.

There’s a major equity angle to this issue as well. Under our current rules, we will have captains older than 60 carrying Americans on foreign carriers originating overseas, from countries such as Canada, Australia, Israel, Japan — about three dozen countries overall. They’ll be coming here, picking up Americans, and then flying them elsewhere. So you have to ask:  It’s safe to fly with foreign pilots on our shores, but it’s not safe with our own?

It’s not as if we don’t have some experience with this, because in fact, we do. Back in 1995, when the agency brought small commuter operators up to the same standards as the majors to form “one level of safety,” we allowed about 200 pilots over the age of 60 to continue to fly, grandfathered in for about four years. There were no medical events, no safety events, nothing to show that group couldn’t fly above age 60.

And now, I’d like to turn to the most compelling reason. Like the pilot on the West Coast who wrote me the letter, the fact of the matter is that there’s a heckuva lot of experience behind those captain stripes, and we shouldn’t have to lose it as early as we do. I want our older captains to be around longer to help the younger pilots rising up through the ranks.

A pilot can learn a lot just by seeing how the experienced vet handles a situation that they may only have seen in simulation. Simulators are great for training, but there’s no substitute for real life, encountering all different weather systems, different mechanical or technical problems that bring their own unique challenges, sometimes in combination. All of that leads to what I call “airmanship,” decision making, the pilot skills that make our system so good. When you think back over recent years, there have been very few accidents, but almost all of those that have occurred have turned on human decision-making.

So with all of this said, a procedural question arises, and I think it’s a fair one:  Why don’t you just put the new retirement age in place today, right now? After all, there are pilots out there every month who turn 60 but want to keep flying. The answer is simple. We can’t. And it wouldn’t be the right thing to do.

Except in very limited circumstances, such as an urgent safety issue, the Administrative Procedure Act governs and it requires that a notice of proposed rulemaking be issued before any final action can be taken. The public, the industry, individual pilots need to have the opportunity to comment, and we have an obligation to listen and consider the data and opposing arguments before making a final decision.

This is how the rulemaking process works — deliberative, purposeful. And there are a lot more requirements to be met than in Pete Quesada’s day, so it takes time. When it’s something you want right away, it’s a hurdle. But when it’s something over which there’s honest debate, it’s one of the key ways the strength of our aviation system was built.

Now, there are some strong feelings out there about the retirement age, and it’s going to take time, and I want to particularly thank a number of people who have already put a great deal of time into these deliberations. You see, for help with this, I established an aviation rulemaking committee — we call it an ARC — made up of representatives of the airlines, pilot unions, a group representing pilots over 60 and the aero-medical community. I asked them to review the situation and make recommendations. And even though they could not come to consensus, they produced a thoughtful report that I found very helpful. I want to particularly thank the co-chairs, Captain Duane Woerth of ALPA, the Airline Pilots Association and Jim May of the Air Transport Association for their yeoman’s work.

And I must tell you, one reason for announcing our decision to move forward months in advance of the actual NPRM being published is I’m going to ask the ARC for a bit more help in collecting data so that we get the details of the proposed rule as close to right as possible. And in that regard, I’m grateful that the new head of ALPA, Captain John Prater, has agreed to step in as co-chair to finish the analysis. And shepherding this all along is Nick Sabatini, our Associate Administration for Aviation Safety, and an FAA staff, a number of whom are here today.

Now, finally, let me touch briefly on another matter of global harmonization. Recently, the European Union proposed legislation that would put international flights into a Europeanemissions trading scheme without theconsent of their governments. Many countries around the world, including the U.S., view this unilateral approach as unworkable and unsustainable under international law.

It is directly counter to everything ICAO stands for. It goes against the efforts of ICAO to develop agreed international guidance for use in emissions trading. Through the European SESAR plan and our NextGen efforts, we’re seeking to dramatically improve the efficiency and environmental performance of our air traffic systems, taking advantage of proven technologies and practices such as RNP, ADS-B and RVSM. Unilateral moves weaken the foundation for collaboration, harmonization. Trying to impose a “one size fits all” solution on a complex issue in a global industry is a recipe for failure. Unilateral moves are a step back. Let me leave it at that.

In closing, with respect to Age 60, let me emphasize that the retirement issue strikes a real chord and elicits strong emotions on both sides. I read an article in the San Francisco Chronicle earlier this month that particularly struck me. I’m going to quote a pilot mentioned in the article:

“When I started,” he says, “the World War II guys were still flying.” He’s talking about the senior pilots in the 1960s. “They were chain smokers, drank hard liquor, never exercised. Now, almost no one does those things. Plus, we get random alcohol tests. We have to pass rigorous physicals twice a year from doctors who specialize in aviation.”

As I see it, he’s precisely on point. We’re moving forward because it’s a change whose time has come. The objections of the past don’t cut it anymore. This is the right thing to do. Experience counts, it’s an added margin of safety, and at the end of the day, that is what counts. Isn’t it?

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