Exclusive—Captain Sherry Walker: Keep the Most Experienced Pilots in the Cockpit

(iStock/Getty Images)
iStock/Getty Images

After the biggest air travel debacle of 2023 that culminated in the Fourth of July, Congress is debating the Federal Aviation Administration Reauthorization Act. What should be a “once every five years” bipartisan effort to ensure public safety and the efficiency of the National Airspace System is, instead, turning into a political showdown.

Acts of God aside, a leading reason for most flight delays is lack of available manpower. When weather strikes, pilots routinely find themselves diverted or delayed. Some end up in the wrong cities and cannot get to work or they arrive so late that they cannot legally continue without an intervening rest period. The solution is obviously more pilots. But how?

For years, industry experts have warned of a pending pilot shortage. The military is not producing as many pilots as during wartime. Civilian flight training costs can top hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many pilots who were furloughed during the pandemic found employment in other fields or began their own businesses and have not returned to the skies.

Of those remaining, it is estimated over 5,000 will reach mandatory retirement age (65) in the next two years. Archaic, discriminatory, and arbitrary age-based pilot retirement rules are founded in the days when pilots had large company pension plans. After the round of airline bankruptcies post-911, most defined pension plans were scrapped. Yet the age limit remained.

In 2007, the pilot unions fought to raise the mandatory retirement age from 60 to 65. Today, 11 countries have age limits of at least 67, and no studies have found any safety issues. Keep in mind, depending on age, every U.S. airline pilot must pass a rigorous semi-annual flight physical. As society grows healthier at more mature ages, maintaining an arbitrary retirement age cannot be scientifically defended. We can find no cognitive studies that substantiate any claims that raising the pilot retirement age to 67 would be detrimental to safety. In fact, no passenger fatalities are credited to a pilot suffering an in-flight incapacitation as the result of their age in the history of American aviation.

Instead, the flying public would benefit immensely from having more of the most seasoned pilots in the industry with their hands on the controls in the cockpit, leading the way to better performance and greater customer satisfaction.

Frankly, it is hypocritical and discriminatory to suggest anyone is unable to perform their duties simply based on a calendar date. Members of Congress do not magically lose their ability to do their jobs when they celebrate their 65th birthdays. Our research indicates 70 U.S. Senators and 136 Members of the House of Representatives are over the age of 65 and would therefore fall under this birthday-based term limit. Another 12 House Members are turning 65 within the next year. Over 40 percent–some 218 members of the House and Senate–would be forced to abandon their positions if age 65 were the cutoff for their careers. Keep in mind, the leader of the free world, President Joe Biden, is an octogenarian. All this is to say, term limits based simply on age are discriminatory and foolhardy, as evidenced by our national leadership.

Pandering to its younger members and pitting them against their most senior members, the nation’s largest pilot union, the Air Line Pilot Association (ALPA), is fighting to maintain age 65 retirement. While big labor unions toss around millions of dollars of PAC money to prolong the pilot shortage and drive up wages, the American people slept on airport cots over the Fourth of July weekend. Perhaps ALPA should forgo the money and instead return to its safety-based roots and demand only the most qualified and experienced pilots fly you and your families.

In the end, you can choose your doctor. But you cannot choose your pilot. Nowhere is experience more important than in these two cases. Arguably though, your pilot can hurt a lot more people in a lot less time. Thus, experience matters. If given a choice, we bet the passengers on the Miracle on the Hudson flight would choose Captain Sullenberger again, even today. Yet, Sully was forced to retire a mere seven years after that fateful day due to this outdated policy.

U.S. Airway pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (left) and co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles speak in the cockpit of a US Airways flight moments before take-off from LaGuardia Airport on Sullenberger’s first official day back in the cockpit on October 1, 2009, in New York City. (Seth Wenig-Pool/Getty Images)

Front page of the Daily News for January 16, 2009, about pilot Chesley Sullenberger’s Miracle on the Hudson flight. (NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

Some suggest the solution to the pilot shortage is not raising the age, but rather, lowering qualification standards. The U.S. has enjoyed 13 consecutive, accident-free years because of hard-fought legislation that increased pilot minimum qualifications as a result of the 2009 Colgan Air 3407 accident in Buffalo, New York. During that battle, bipartisanship ruled the day because legislators put the safety of the American people ahead of self-interest. We ask they do the same today. However, if those determined to end the shortage by reducing pilot qualifications are successful, it becomes even more critical that we, the most experienced in our profession, remain to mentor and guide the influx of less experienced pilots that will join our National Air Space system.

Members of Congress must put aside partisan politics in the name of safety. We must all stand together as we emerge from the pandemic to strengthen our industry and ensure our incredible accident-free safety record continues. Lawmakers must put aside amendments and riders that serve special interest such as flight schools. Do the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do, and passengers will benefit. Let experienced pilots keep flying.

Captain Sherry Walker is an airline pilot and co-founder of Airline Employees for Health Freedom.


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