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There aren't enough airline pilots. What's Congress proposing as a solution?


Air travel is booming, and airlines are struggling to keep up, in part because of a pilot shortage. Congress wants to ease the pressure by raising the mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots from 65 to 67. The House approved that in July, and the Senate will vote on it this month. Our colleague A Martínez spoke with Captain Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, to learn why the pilots union opposes the change.

JASON AMBROSI: The last time the retirement age was raised, from 60 to 65, there was a significant study over a five-year period by ICAO, the International Civil Aviation Organization, that supported raising the age. The FAA, at that point, followed suit and raised the age from 60 to 65 here in the United States. This time, the international standard remains 65, and there hasn't been any study to say that raising the age is safe or is not safe. So as the FAA and DOT have said, proper study should be completed prior to making a change to a safety regulation.

A MARTÍNEZ, BYLINE: Couldn't you go off of what other countries, such as Canada, Japan and Australia, are doing who have higher limits and some no limit at all?

AMBROSI: Well, some of those countries, as you say, have higher limits, and their operations are significantly less nuanced as ours. We're the No. 1 leader in the world. We do more flying than anyone. Before we would raise it, obviously, we would need to do our own homework and make sure that an increase is appropriate because of the large amount of international operations we conduct.

MARTÍNEZ: How much homework and what kind of homework would you need?

AMBROSI: Look, a safety agency needs to look at it - you know, an FAA, NASA, somebody needs to take a look at this issue and decide if there's any mitigation that needs to happen as part of making a change. The number 67 in itself is an arbitrary number. The proponents for it don't have any data that says 67 is the right number.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. Now, some members of your union don't support the union's position on this, saying that experience makes them safer pilots. What do you say to those members that believe that?

AMBROSI: I understand this is a very passionate issue. Both sides have their own interests at heart, and a vast majority of our members support keeping the number where it is.

MARTÍNEZ: Does a shortage of pilots maybe give you a stronger hand when it comes to negotiating on salaries? Is that something that maybe contributes to this position?

AMBROSI: Well, it doesn't contribute to this position. The airlines took the steps that they felt necessary during the pandemic to bump a lot of pilots to lower equipment and a lot of early retirements - now getting caught back up. They're getting caught back up, as evidenced by - you know, this summer's operations have been far better than last summer's operations. The light is at the end of the tunnel. This is not a problem in search of a solution. The solution's already there.

MARTÍNEZ: If the retirement age were to increase, Jason, what benefits might pilots experience?

AMBROSI: The only obvious benefit is they would be permitted to work for two more years should they choose and enjoy the contractual gains that we've negotiated in the post-pandemic environment.

MARTÍNEZ: The Washington Post reported that the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating nearly 5,000 pilots for falsifying medical records to hide conditions that might lead them to be grounded. Jason, is part of your concern that that number could maybe rise if pilots are allowed to fly until the age of 67?

AMBROSI: Look, pilots are responsible to accurately report any medical conditions they may have. I can tell you that the airline pilot profession is one of the most highly scrutinized and regulated careers, and for good reason. We're continuously evaluated through our careers, through training, medical exams, you know, safety audits and random flight checks by the FAA. ALPA and its members, you know, appreciate the common-sense approach that the FAA is taking to address this issue, but it primarily does not involve commercial airline pilots.

MARTÍNEZ: All right. That's Jason Ambrosi, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. Jason, thanks a lot.

AMBROSI: All right. Thank you for your time today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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