Pilots Pushing 60 Lobby for the Right to Stay Aloft

FAA Reauthorization Increases Age Limit, but Is It Retroactive?

Posted July 20, 2007 at 6:00pm

Retirement for Lew Tetlow apparently doesn’t mean padding around his home in Bedford, N.H. Tetlow, in fact, spent all of last week lobbying Congress to get his old job back. He’ll be doing the same this week, too.

Until he turned 60 on April 2, Tetlow was a pilot for US Airways, but commercial airline pilots hit a mandatory retirement when they usher in the end of their sixth decade. House and Senate bills to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, as they are currently drafted, will move that limit to 65 years old.

Tetlow and his organization, the Senior Pilots Coalition, say that doesn’t go far enough because it doesn’t grandfather in pilots who already have lost their jobs. The senior pilots, in defiance of the leading pilots union and another long-standing group lobbying to increase the age limit, the Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination, are lobbying to grandfather in all pilots who turned 60 after Nov. 23, 2006, when foreign pilots up to age 65 were permitted to fly in and out of the United States. They are joined by another group set up to lobby to change the age rule, the Professional Pilots Federation.

“We’re merely asking for equity with the rest of the world that has the right to fly into the United States,” Tetlow said. “We don’t support what’s in the bills now because they both lack protection and equity for pilots who have been coerced into retirement since 23 Nov. 2006.”

The Senior Pilots Coalition, whose members include many Vietnam War veterans, has adopted the motto of No Pilot Left Behind, a reference to the military credo of leaving no soldier behind, said the coalition’s contract lobbyist Phillip Theodosiou, a scrappy Republican who runs Theodosiou Consultants.

Theodosiou said he is working with Members of both parties and both chambers including the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. “These Members of Congress understand discrimination,” Theodosiou said. The lobbyist said the senior pilots group is also working to get on the Lou Dobbs show this week.

Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.), a pilot himself, said he supports raising the age limit to 65. “Pilots who are bumping up against mandatory retirement, there’s a lot of experience there. It’s invaluable,” he said. “I want somebody who knows what they’re doing.”

Another Member pilot, Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.), has sponsored a Freedom to Fly bill that would raise the age limit. But, he said, “we cannot support making it retroactive.”

Pilots could reapply for new jobs with commercial airlines, but they would not retain their seniority, and many of the senior pilots say their younger colleagues and former employers alike are happy not to have their plumper paychecks and seniority around anymore.

A spokesman for the Air Line Pilots Association, the leading union for commercial pilots, said that ALPA supports the increase to age 65 but does not support grandfathering in any pilots who already have turned 60.

“This is becoming a very complex issue,” Theodosiou said. “Junior pilots are actually trying to force senior citizens out of their jobs. It’s about the economics.”

Tetlow’s organization is also opposed to the Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination, a group that has been around for a decade trying to get the commercial pilot retirement age changed to 65. APAAD, however, is not asking Congress to grandfather in the already retired pilots, said the group’s chairman, Paul Emens.

“We realized this was never going to pass on Capitol Hill because of too much opposition from corporations and big unions if it was retroactive,” he said. “We said, ‘OK, then we understand we can’t get it done. So let’s change the rule as quickly as possible.’”

Some of the Senior Pilots Coalition members were, and in some cases still are, part of APAAD. Every month, Emens estimates that 200 pilots lose their jobs because they turn 60.

“I’m losing guys left and right,” he said.

Still, he added, he worries about the message and hardline approach of the Senior Pilots Coalition, even though he said he understands why the coalition’s members are angry. Emens said he also has heard the Senior Pilots Coalition is discussing the possibility of a government bailout for pilots who have lost their jobs since November.

“This is a small group, but they are causing a lot of trouble,” Emens said. “If they screw it up for everybody and we get nothing, we’re going to lose another 4,000 or 5,000 jobs while we’re waiting for the FAA.”

While the senior pilots group might be in opposition to the union and APAAD, the coalition is reaching out to other organizations including the senior citizens lobby AARP, Theodosiou said.

David Certner, legislative counsel for AARP, said the group has long disapproved of age discrimination, including the age 60 limit for commercial airline pilots. But as for AARP’s support for the Senior Pilots Coalition, Certner said they’re in the preliminary stages of deciding what, if any, role to play.