FAA warns US Congress against hiking airline pilot retirement age

Pilots are seen in the cockpit of an airplane as it sits on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport on the July 4th weekend in Queens, New York City

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration told Congress in a letter on Monday that lawmakers should not raise the mandatory retirement age of airline pilots to 67 from 65, saying it should first be allowed to conduct additional research.

"It is crucial to provide the agency an opportunity to conduct research and determine mitigations," FAA Administrator Mike Whitaker said in a letter first reported by Reuters.

The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee is eying a potential hearing on Thursday to consider its own version of the aviation bill to extend the authorization of the FAA.

"When it comes to raising the pilot retirement age, the FAA has made clear that a scientific and safety analysis must come first. That has not happened," said Senator Maria Cantwell, the committee chair. "Aviation safety is paramount, and now is not the time to take a shortcut."

The U.S. House in July voted 351-69 on an aviation reform measure that would hike the mandatory retirement age to 67. "We strongly encourage preceding that type of change with appropriate research so that the FAA can measure any risk," Whitaker added.

A separate letter from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg to Congress on Jan. 26 said the FAA "currently has no data to support such increase to the retirement age." He warned that raising the age to 67 would be "above the international standard and will have consequences for U.S. air carriers."

Congress last year failed to pass the FAA bill before the Sept. 30 deadline and has voted twice to temporarily extend the agency. The current extension expires in early March.

Airlines for America, a group representing American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines and Southwest Airlines, declined to comment.

The Air Line Pilots Association opposes raising the retirement age and said such a move could cause airline scheduling and pilot training issues and require the reopening of pilot contract talks. The group praised Whitaker's letter.

Current international rules would still prevent pilots older than 65 from flying in most countries outside the United States.

The Regional Airline Association supports the pilot age hike, saying it "allows retention of more experienced captains, who can in turn fly alongside and mentor new first officers, helping to stabilize attrition."

The Senate bill was previously held up by a dispute over whether to change pilot training requirements imposed after the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people, the last major U.S. passenger airline fatal crash. That issue appears to have been resolved.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in WashingtonEditing by Lisa Shumaker and Matthew Lewis)