View Full Version : Hoot Gibson Article on Airline Flying and age 60 rule

Randy Haskin
10-29-2006, 03:29 AM

Is 60 too old to be a pilot?
Question raised as ex-astronaut forced to retire from airline job

Copyright 2006 Houston Chronicle

Robert "Hoot" Gibson was not the happiest camper Friday, despite a party in his honor.
Not only was the longtime astronaut piloting his last commercial airline flight because of a forced retirement, but the flight was five minutes late, to boot.

Gibson, a colorful member of NASA's elite astronaut corps who commanded four of the five space shuttle missions he flew, is ending a 10-year run with Southwest Airlines because he turns 60 on Monday, the mandatory retirement age for pilots in the U.S.

Gibson calls it blatant age discrimination.

"I'm not ready," he said.

He makes his complaint at a time when there's a chance the rule, enacted in 1959, could be changed, although whether it will remains to be seen.

The Federal Aviation Authority has launched a review to explore a possible change.

But the agency has made it known it doesn't want to act without a congressional mandate. Lawmakers could vote on pending legislation later this year.

Next month, the International Civil Aviation Organization is set to adopt a new worldwide standard of age 65 for commercial airline pilot retirement.

The organization believes member countries should increase the age limit, as long as the second pilot in the crew is below 60 and all pilots over 60 undergo a medical assessment every six months.

The U.S. is one of four countries that disagrees with the organization's change. The others are France, Pakistan and Colombia.

A cadre of senators who want the age limit changed wrote a letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakeley several weeks ago noting that foreign pilots over 60 will be allowed to work and fly in U.S. airspace.

"We hope you appreciate ... allowing foreign pilots to work and fly in the U.S. to age 65 without affording U.S. pilots the same privilege will not sit well with the American people and most members of Congress," the letter said.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, co-sponsored the Senate legislation, a spokesman said Friday.

But there is a host of opponents, including the Air Line Pilots Association. The pilots' union long has favored the age limit and is not considering a change, said Pete Janhunen, ALPA spokesman.

But Gibson said ALPA members don't want the change because pilots who retire at 60 enjoy a hefty benefits package.

Janhunen acknowledged there are "financial implications."

A study earlier this year by airline analyst Darryl Jenkins determined that Senate Bill 65 would save the federal government almost $1 billion in delayed pension payments and added Social Security, Medicare and tax payments.

Southwest Airlines, whose pilots are not represented by the ALPA, is on record as supporting a change in the age limit, spokesman Ed Stewart said Friday, as does the Southwest Airlines Pilot Association.

Southwest's chairman, Herb Kelleher, has sent letters to Washington asking for the change to be considered, Stewart said.

"It's been in effect since 1959, and the world has changed," Stewart said.

Houston-based Continental on Friday deferred to its pilots union, which is affiliated with the ALPA.

Gibson noted that he passes two physicals a year, flies a large assortment of other types of aircraft and runs four miles a day several times a week.

There's never been an age-related accident involving a commercial aircraft, he said.

"It ought to be an on-condition type of thing," he said.

Friends and family attended the party at Hobby feting Gibson, who was chosen as an astronaut in 1978.

"Nobody can fly a simulator or a shuttle like Hoot Gibson," said former Southwest pilot and friend Dick East.

Gibson, who is married to shuttle astronaut Dr. Rhea Seddon, retired from NASA in 1995. He was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame in 2003.

Many passengers on Gibson's last flight Friday came out smiling, such as Cindy Oravecz of Ohio, who flew to Houston to attend the annual quilt show.

"That flight was a real hoot," she said as she left the plane.


10-29-2006, 06:16 AM
As long as medical requirements are met. I fully agree that forced retirement at age 60 is not right. I know a couple of pilots that over the next few years will be facing this same situation, and it doesn't sit well with them. They love what they do.


10-29-2006, 07:04 AM
Hey, as long as they don't go through the air with a blinker on, I'll ride in their bus....... :D

Randy Haskin
10-29-2006, 08:01 AM
The main opposition to the change comes from younger guys who count on forced retirements to let them progress up the seniority scale (and to higher pay and better equipment).

Raising the age would basically freeze upgrades for 5 years and would impact the pocketbooks of many younger pilots.

10-29-2006, 10:00 AM
At 60 you can not pilot commercial airline. Does that extend to all commercial? Charter, or freight or instruction or bush pilot, etc.

Dan Plunkett

10-29-2006, 10:15 AM
I sure would have never guessed that Hoot had reached that age!

No way does he *look* 60!


Blue Foam
10-29-2006, 01:55 PM
The main opposition to the change comes from younger guys who count on forced retirements to let them progress up the seniority scale (and to higher pay and better equipment).

Raising the age would basically freeze upgrades for 5 years and would impact the pocketbooks of many younger pilots.

Airline industry growth takes a bite out of that 5 years. Growth may be slow right now, but in the past has hit double digits.

More important is that the younger pilots today would then get to spend an extra five years from age 60 to 65 in the high paying left seat of a jumbo. The support of younger pilots for the "age 60" rule has historically changed as they approach the limit...

The real shame is that we still have this union driven lock-your-career-up-with-one-airline employment model. It is totally ludicrous that a senior, high time, 747 captain of a major carrier can have 30 years and his pension wiped out by a bankruptcy and the only job he can get in the airlines is as a base level first officer on narrow bodies. More than the age 60 rule needs fixing in this industry.

Shawn Aro
10-29-2006, 02:10 PM
John Crocker had to retired form world Air Ways at 60 Shawn

10-30-2006, 11:33 AM
Here is a link from a Houston tv news report about Hoot retiring, hopefully the ruling will be changed to 65.


10-30-2006, 01:29 PM
Dag-nabbit, I fly SWA alot and was really hoping to get him as Captain on one of my flights with them.

10-30-2006, 02:33 PM
As has been pointed out, keeping us old timers around an extra 5 years would keep young guys furloughed that much longer and be frozen in their position if they're still on line. Every time a vote or survey is taken at ALPA (Air Line Pilots Associaton that represents all US pilots except American, Southwest, UPS and Airtran) it's about 60/40 to keep the rule in place. With the large exodus of pilots at Delta (very few over 50) the average age of ALPA pilots is scewed to young guys who never think they'll get old and want us old guys gone.

Hoot, like many pilots, has no airline pension (Southwest has NEVER had a pension of any kind), and he isn't senior enough to have gotten rich off the stock options the old timers got. (My old college roomate got on Southwest in 1978 and is a multi-millionaire from the IPO and stock deals just like the early FEDEX pilots are). And he just started making good money ($200k or so) and obviously is physically fit. When I started in the airline business (I start my 30th year Nov 7) we made the same money as doctors adjusted for inflation and could count on about a $140k pension plus about a million lump sum from the 401K plus "B" plan. No more, which is why a lot of us want to keep working.

The idea of a national seniority list has been one of my "dreams" for years, having gone through 3 mergers an losing about 9 years of seniority and several hundred grand in pay, but that's not as bad as the ex-Eastern/Braniff/PanAm pilots who lost it all. I still fly with many copilots from those airlines that should be senior to me but will retire never having flown captain (I've been a captain since 1986). But ALPA always seems dominated by pilots from the "surviving" airline which seems to give them more clout with the arbitrators that decide on merged seniority lists. So the idea of a national seniority list or policy of date of hire for mergers has never seen the light of day. The America West/USAir list will be interesting as there are furoughed USAir pilots that are senior to captains at Americ West (every first officer at USAir used to be a captain).

The other "fly in the ointment" is the possibility of more onerous medical standards. When this was done in Australia most pilots over 50 could no longer pass the medical standards, which were rescinded as it was nothing more than a way for doctors to make more money. All a first class medical is supposed to mean is that you won't die for another six months. High cholesterol or whatever that may kill you in 20 years is no reason to have one's career ended at age 50.

The big blocker in the US isn't ALPA, it's the FAA that doesn't want to deal with justifying any changes in medical standards, they don't want to open Pandora's box.

The ICAO retirement age goes to 65 on November 23, which means no ICAO member nation, including the US, can bar foreign pilots over age 60 from flying in to the US. The FAA hasn't enforced that rule anyway, Iceland Air has been flying in to MSP for years with captains over 60. The only catch is only one pilot per crew can be over 60.

With the retirement age going from 55 to 65 in the UK and Europe, the practice of retiring at 55 and going to Asia as a widebody captain for 5 more years may be over. (Most captains on airlines like Cathay, Eva, Singapore, JALways, Emirates, etc. are retired European or Australian). So if a US widebody captain still has some pension left (I'll get about 75% of mine but the benefit is frozen) it makes more sense to retire at 60 and go to Asia and take one of those jobs, some of the pay being free of US taxes. So maybe the stagnation if age limit is raised won't be as bad. In addition, most of the laid off pilots realize there is no future in the airline business and don't want to come back anyway.

The only big money with big pension airlines left are FEDEX and UPS. I hear that only about 25% of laid off pilots at Delta who have been offered recall have accepted. At my airline, Northwest, only 20% are accepting recall, probably reflecting the fact that Northwest is a less desirable work place.

With average starting pay for an MBA being $108k (according to USA Today) , more opportunities in the military due to Iraq, and flight colleges costing as much as medical school, a kid would be a fool to be an airline pilot today.

Remember when a large number of unlimited racers at Reno were airline pilots who actually owned their own planes? Not many left, are there. Because no airline pilot will ever be able to afford it again. Better off being a brain surgeon or real estate developer or whatever if you want to race unlimited, unless you can be a "hired gun" like Skip, Hoot, or John Penney.

Didn't mean to carry on for so long, probably a bore to non-airline folks who just want safe, cheap transportation

Ron Henning

T. Adams
10-30-2006, 03:04 PM
The NBC evening news just did a nice little story on Hoot flying for the last time today with Southwest. No video or anything, but Brian Williams made it plain that it is very ironic that a Space Shuttle pilot has to quit flying because of a rule that dates back to 1959!!!!!

10-30-2006, 04:20 PM
Should have added that my first yearly checkride as a DC-9 co-pilot was with Captain Claude Allen who had to retire in a few weeks. Claude lived 20 miles from the Atlanta airport and RAN to the airport for his last 2 day trip then RAN home again to protest the age 60 rule. The TV stations were there for that too. This was about July 1979.

The rule will change eventually, the average active pilot at my airline (Northwest) is 49 years old! (I'm 56).

Sorry I missed Hoot on NBC.

Ron Henning

10-30-2006, 09:19 PM
What will typically happen with the change of retirement age is that the corporation that runs the airline will take the amount of money that one would have had in his retirement at the end of his career at age sixty and run that same amount out to age sixty five. There will be the added amount of money made by working the last five years in straight pay, but the company is not going to let the added year's total a higher pension. Eventually the management will reduce the pay so as to have the pilot make his career total the same as if he had worked to sixty instead of sixty five. Five more years of work, same amount of money, get it?

Wait and watch what the much vaunted AMR does with American Airlines pension's during the coming years in which the contract talks take place, for example. The openers are out already; nebulous, nothing talk custom made to make the process as long as the last negotiations (never did get a contract) before the "bankruptcy threat" concessions.

The whole process will be a win for big business and a loss for the hourly worker (that would be the pilot). If pilots wore blue shirts, they would have a much clearer view of who they are, and how they are paid.


10-31-2006, 05:15 AM
Note to Ron Henning:

THANKS for typing out your views on the subject... VERY enlightening and good food for thought!

10-31-2006, 04:08 PM
Chris, that kind of depends on if the pension plan is "frozen" like we did at Northwest which was only possible by a change in pension law that came down to the wire and, to our mangement's credit, donated two DC-9s to carry pilots to DC and meet with congress folks (of course Northwest wanted to keep the plan to avoid having the Pension Benefit Guarntee Corporation from having a seat on the board of directors and being a creditor). The law change allows a more realistic interest rate assumpiton and spreads out the number of years the company has to make good on the pension. Of course Northwest as a stand alone airline won't survive that long but if a merger occurs, say with American, the new carrier would have to make good on the obligation. And since our plan is frozen no more obligation is being incurred by the company. So we stopped digging a hole for ourselves and made it easier to begin digging out.

If the retirement age goes to 65 the actuarial tables will reduce the amount of funding required to "fully fund" the plan.

But what is fully funded? That does NOT mean if the company shuts down today all pension benefits for those retired or still working will be met. Fully funded means that IF the plan earns a certain amount of earnings per year, and IF the company is able to make the payments required to meet the future obligation, the plan is considered "fully funded". The Bush administration wanted to change the law to require enough money in the plan to provide all benefits until the last employee dies TODAY, which would kill all defined benefit plans. That was their goal. Former Treasury Secretary Snow, who gets about $450k from his defined benefit plan and was credited with about 15 more years of service than he actually had, is on record as saying defined benefit pension plans for LABOR (not management) are a "drag" on the economy and must be eliminated to make us "competitive" in labor costs (we have to be cheaper than the Chinese).

So making me work longer while not earning any more retirement money while not being retired as long if I go to 65 will allow the company to put less money in the fund. It would probably go to executive bonuses!