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The FAA requires pilots to be at least 23 years old to acquire an ATP. But what's the rationale for this rule? I can understand why has to retire at the age of 65 but why can't we have an 18 year old captain flying a jet?

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Aviation Meta, or in Aviation Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed. $\endgroup$
    – DeltaLima
    Commented Jan 10 at 19:36
  • $\begingroup$ (23 is way too young, it should be 25 or more.) Note as a curiosity, male brains mature much, MUCH, later than female brains. (Google the research.) If 18 year olds or 20 year olds were to be allowed, it's inconceivable males would be allowed, it would only be female pilots. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 12 at 21:28
  • $\begingroup$ @Fattie how do they make sure immature 25 year olds don't become pilots? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 12 at 21:31
  • $\begingroup$ @JonathanReez How do we ask rhetorical questions? They don't. The fact that cutoffs are a gray area, is unsurprising and a normal part of the world. In most countries you can't drive a car until you're 15. Are there 12 year olds who could perfectly drive a car, yes; are there 30 yr olds who are way too immature to drive a car, yes. There is no amazing mystery, surprise or confusion in this. Flying a plane has stunningly drastic consequences if you fuck up; if you fuck up driving a car the consequences are trivial (at worst you might kill 3 or 4 people). No great mystery. $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 12 at 21:36
  • $\begingroup$ Another related example, I believe in the US the air force has a simple height limit (something like 5'5" to 6'5" and that's it). It's a gray area (like all limits), but "gray area" does not imply "it's best to have no limit". $\endgroup$
    – Fattie
    Commented Jan 12 at 21:38

4 Answers 4

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Brain development.

An airline transport pilot has to deal not only with by-the-book situations, but also with situations that aren't going by the book. If they didn't, we'd have them replaced by AI years ago.

To reach ATP requirements by 18, your life has to go perfectly. Born in a pilot family, trained early, got your hours in minimum possible time. That ensures the ability to manipulate the controls - the ability the autopilot has as well. It says nothing about one's ability to handle stress and uncertainty.

Being 23-65 years old doesn't guarantee that ability, just as being 35-65 doesn't guarantee the ability to handle presidential duties. But being outside that range greatly increases the chances of not having that ability.

Starting at 23 also gives time for a college degree, which helps prepare one for the amount of paperwork that comes with being an airline pilot. The captain especially isn't just an aviator - they are also in command of both flight and cabin crew once on board, and ultimately responsible for the passengers. The first officer has fewer command duties (until 2013, only captains needed an ATP), but they have to be able to take them over as well.

It's discrimination, but it's fair discrimination, based on what the job entails.

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    $\begingroup$ @Cloud you do not need brain development to be a president: you just need to understand which lobby groups succesfully put you up there. Even a teenager can understand and act accordingly to that ;) $\endgroup$
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Jan 10 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ I know it was just a joke, but "discrimination" (in the sense it is used in 99% of cases these days) means unfair discrimination. Nothing about having a clear age requirement set by regulation is unfair. It would be unfair if there were no public regulation, but a company denied applicants based on their age without telling them, while pretending that it is not discriminating based on that. Or if a company would fire a pilot due to age (before reaching the official 65 years). So it is in fact not discrimination (in the negative connotation). scnr $\endgroup$
    – AnoE
    Commented Jan 10 at 15:13
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    $\begingroup$ 35 is the minimum age to be President of the United States. This is a requirement mandated by the Constitution. $\endgroup$
    – barbecue
    Commented Jan 10 at 18:31
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    $\begingroup$ @AnoE it really goes beyond regulation and is more about when you are allowed to discriminate in employment hiring on the basis of protected classes (old age, sex, national origin, race etc). A job that requires lots of heavy lifting would be allowed to set requirements (eg must be able to easily lift 100 lbs) that amount to de-facto discrimination on the basis of sex, but such a requirement would be grounds for an easy lawsuit if it was a cashier job. Though it's true that for pilots it's spelled out in law and regulations, it's a special case of a very general thing. $\endgroup$
    – eps
    Commented Jan 11 at 15:26
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    $\begingroup$ @EndAnti-SemiticHate The bar has been permanently lowered, and I anticipate a root vegetable winning the presidency sometime in the next decade. $\endgroup$
    – barbecue
    Commented Jan 11 at 15:52
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I'm going to set aside the "18 year old captain" and approach this matter form an "18 year old airline transport pilot" point of view.

It is well documented in medical science that an 18 year old is still cognitively undeveloped. For example the folowing article quite nicely sums up most of the subject: Maturation of the adolescent brain

While it certainly is true that individual variation is great in this matter, for the sake of simplicity a single age restriction has been set. 23 is not arbitrary, as statistically human brain, and namely the prefrontal cortex which would be the most important part in most cognitive and social functions reaches maturity at the age of 25. Considering that one can assume that most of the candidates for ATP licence are sufficiently developed by the age of 23, while people at the legal maturity age of 18 are still "cooking" so to say.

Difficulty with allowing a 15 year old (derived from comment below, used as an extreme example) take on extrememely demanding tasks is, as I tried to describe in my answer, that a person at that age is not fully "formed". They will evolve, and not necessarily into a good direction. This development is not something the person can control themselves, as it is to a large extent hormonally driven. It is by far much safer to see how things turn out, that is to wait until the person's brain develpoment is likely to be advanced enough to assume certain stability. Allowing a larger range of ages would necessitate streunous and expensive screening processes, which themselves are not foolproof.

Main point would be, as stated in the aforementioned article:

Furthermore, the adolescent brain evolves its capability to organize, regulate impulses, and weigh risks and rewards; however, these changes can make adolescents highly vulnerable to risk-taking behavior. Thus, brain maturation is an extremely important aspect of overall adolescent development, and a basic understanding of the process might aid in the understanding of adolescent sexual behavior, pregnancy, and intellectual performance issues.

From a personal point of view, and having 50 odd years of observation of life, I can safely say that only a diminshingly small fraction of 18 year olds can be considered mature in the sense that is necessary if one was put in charge of hundreds of lives. Aviation industry in general is extremely focussed on risk mitigation, and setting this requirement is simply one way of avoiding unnecessary hazard. Surely there are a handfull of candidates that will suffer subjective injustice because of this, but as a whole, everybody wins.

As an endorsement to Michael hall's excellent answer, while it certainly is possible to accumulate the hours requiered for ATPL at a very young age,it simply is not the hours that make you competent. There is plenty of evidence that quickly, even frantically gained experience is more likely to produce complacency rather than competency. Rushing experience at a relatively young age carries the risk of distroting the develoment of the prefrontal cortex. It is better to learn slowly and over time, gaining a broad range of experience of different situations and learning from a large pool of peers and seniors. This will enable the brain development to keep up with the learning, and create healthy strategies.

As a sidenote, from the current scientific point of view it actually is strange that people are considered to be fully legally liable at the age of 18.

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    $\begingroup$ I thought the whole notion that the brain finishes developing (i.e. stops developing) at some point is a myth and has been debunked? $\endgroup$
    – Michael
    Commented Jan 10 at 13:31
  • $\begingroup$ The development in described in my answer is far more profound than the one going on through later stages of life. Currently it is commonly accepted that the actual personality of an individual generally continues to develop trough life, althoug it is considered to mostly stabilize between the ages of 35 to 50. Again, variation is great, but anyway major development in capabilities and personality stem from the functioning of the neurons and the networks they create. So yes, the brain does develop througout most of the adult life. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Jan 10 at 13:44
  • $\begingroup$ I found this "prefrontal cortex which would be the most important part in most cognitive and social functions reaches maturity at the age of 25" very interesting. Can you provide a scientific reference? @Michael can you provide a scientific reference for its debunking? $\endgroup$
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Jan 10 at 14:08
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    $\begingroup$ @EarlGrey the article I linked in the answer discusses this, and as an example it presents this graph: ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3621648/figure/f3-ndt-9-449 $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Jan 10 at 14:58
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    $\begingroup$ One would hope, @Michael, that one's brain does not stop developing (though for many, it seems development stopped after 4-6 years, maybe 15...). The point is that it has developed enough (in general) by age 23, to help minimize the risks associated with being a pilot of an aircraft and being responsible for 10+ other people's lives. $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Commented Jan 10 at 17:17
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Outside of brain development and any issues of emotional maturity, there is a strong case to be made for confidence and competence due to quality and breadth of aviation experience gained over a longer duration of time.

  • It normally takes years to accumulate the flight experience to qualify for an ATP. For example, it took me roughly a decade to get the hours and an ATP. During that time I made countless approaches in all kinds of weather conditions, and logged thousands of landings. And grew tremendously in the process.
  • For comparison, running straight math, if you flew 8 hours a day 5 days a week you could have 1500 hours in 37.5 weeks. That's it, less than a year. And unless you are working the pattern hard, you'd have far fewer approaches and landings and likely a lot more time at cruise where the workload is much, much less.

So theoretically a pimply 17 year old could get a PPL, and a year later turn 18 and have the hours needed for an ATP. Do you really think the meager wisdom and experience gained in cramming so many hours into such a short time is at all comparable to someone who has paid their dues over a longer period of time?

Given the same number of hours, would you hire a pilot with 10 years of aeronautical decision making experience, or one year? And regardless of what you might do, it's worth mentioning that airlines weigh tactical military flight hours differently than transport military hours. There's a reason for that, and the same logic would apply to a very young ATP.

Sheer hours spent airborne isn't the only, or even the best measure of experience. It's just the one people tend to pay the most attention to because it is one of the easiest to measure, and there is a presumed correlation to other desirable characteristics of a pilot.

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    $\begingroup$ Nothing. But the pimples clearing up provides some small comfort to passengers disturbed by the excessively youthful appearance of those they entrust their lives to. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 9 at 23:06
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    $\begingroup$ The Colgan Rule was a disaster of unintended consequences having the exact opposite effect to what was intended. I used to know a number of Regional Chief Pilots in my job, and they would complain bitterly about how the 1500 hr requirement, completely arbitrary, blew up their recruiting pool, forcing them to turn away superstar candidates with 800 hrs in favour of midwits with 1500. Candidate quality was actually declining, and they were having to add sim sessions to type courses for new hires as failure rates rose. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Jan 10 at 1:40
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnK, Interesting, but doesn't that speak just as much to hours not being the best measure of skill as to age? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 10 at 2:17
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    $\begingroup$ Anything? That's a pretty absolute statement! Anyway, when hiring for any profession some objective measure of personal experience and competence appropriate to the position is appropriate. What do you suggest? $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 10 at 5:02
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    $\begingroup$ @MichaelHall It wasn't a direct answer to that particular question, which is why I just posted as a comment. It points to the fact that operators, once a candidate has a minimum exp level and a decent skill level, consider a number of psychological and personality factors as priorities. Indirectly, the minimum age requirement could be thought of as helping address that I suppose, especially since suitability for command is one of the key priorities. $\endgroup$
    – John K
    Commented Jan 10 at 5:52
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The age requirement for an airline transport pilot has been in place since at least 1937. You can search for CAR Part 21 on the FAA DRS website. https://drs.faa.gov.

CAR Part 21 circa 1937

I tend to agree with the other answers as to the mental capacity to make complex decisions.


FAA 8900.1 Volume 5 Chapter 3 Section 2 (official guide for examiners) states the following:

  • 5-837 A. Manipulative Skills. The manipulative skill standards for the ATP Certificate are the most rigorous of all pilot certificates issued. The skills requirement for the ATP Certificate and for other certificates differs not in the tolerances allowed, but in the degree of mastery required. The applicant for an ATP Certificate must demonstrate the ability to operate the airplane smoothly under a complex set of circumstances

  • B. Flight Management Skills. The term “pilot in command” implies that the pilot is the leader of a crew and bears the final responsibility for the safe conduct of the flight. This standard, more than any other, distinguishes the successful applicant for an ATP Certificate from those holding other grades of certificates. The ATP flight test must not be limited to a simple demonstration of a series of events. An ATP applicant must demonstrate a mastery of complex problems, good judgment, situational awareness, Crew Resource Management (CRM), and leadership skills.

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    $\begingroup$ This is actually quite interesting, since I don't think neurological research regarding the development of the brain was at the level I describe in my answer in the 30's. So while the rationale may have been the same, I'm not sure there was as profound scientific evidence back it then. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Jan 10 at 19:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Jpe61: That viewpoint is kind of putting the cart before the horse — it’s like saying it’s interesting the Greeks used hemlock for execution since they didn’t understand the chemistry of toxic alkaloids. People have known since time immemorial that many aspects of adult competence — “maturity” — are typically still developing fast through teenage years, and slow down or plateau only in peoples’ twenties. Modern science has helped us quantify the phenomenon and understand its causes, but the basic outline of its effects were known perfectly well in the 1930s, or indeed the 1390s. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 11 at 23:56
  • $\begingroup$ My point was (I worded it poorly) that they already knew the subject, but evidence we have now strongly backs it up. They may have had some scientific evidence back then, but I haven't dug that up. $\endgroup$
    – Jpe61
    Commented Jan 12 at 9:08

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