Lufthansa's pilot union is calling for a strike to defend pilot's right to retire at the age of 55. They argue that the stressful job of flying is too much for older people. This provokes two questions:

  1. What fraction of pilots takes advantage of such a rule (if it is available to them)?
  2. Is there really a steep decline in the capabilities of older pilots?

I would expect that many pilots continue to fly, so I wonder whether it makes sense for Lufthansa to risk full confrontation. Also, if the reasoning of the union is right, it would be prudent for airlines to retire older pilots before they are a safety risk.

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    There are many more reasons for this strike, pension age is only one of them. – DeltaLima Sep 29 '14 at 17:24
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    Airline pilots don't all wear out at the same age. It depends on their number of flight cycles and the quality of preventative maintenance. Excessive lubrication leads to early retirement. – RedGrittyBrick Sep 29 '14 at 19:17
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    I wonder why asking about retiring ages is considered opinion-based now. I would more be interested in hard facts, anyway. – Peter Kämpf Sep 30 '14 at 15:57
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    Personally I abstained from voting, as I understood your intentions, but the wording felt borderline. You can try to explicitely ask for research data/official statistics, rather than leave the questions open-ended. But this could make answers such as Terry's "in my experience" out of scope. – Federico Oct 1 '14 at 14:18
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    I suggest splitting your two questions into two actually separate questions. Data regarding retirement ages of pilots is hard data, so that shouldn't be opinion based. Data on the ability of pilots to fly is a bit softer, but should not ncessarily be opinion based either. However, having those combined in one question may have lead some users to see this as an opinion based question, inviting speculation about pilot retirement. – SQB Oct 23 '14 at 11:50
up vote 50 down vote accepted

My experience, speaking as a pilot who had to retire in 1999 from a small 747 carrier when the US age 60 rule was in effect, was that NONE of us close to retirement wanted to retire. More often than not, the attitude was, "It's hard to believe they actually pay us for this." We didn't want to quit; we were at the top of our game; the world was our playground. The money was also very good!

Insofar as worries of a "steep decline in capabilities of older pilots," there is no statistical evidence that I am aware of to support this, although whether there is at least some decline has been a matter of controversy. You can Google "age 60 rule" and find reams (screen loads?) of info on this. A particularly good link IMO is http://www.avweb.com/news/aeromed/181875-1.html

What makes a good air carrier captain is not so much being a good stick or quick reactions, but being situationally aware, learning what to avoid, being able to read the politics of a situation (especially in third world countries), and other things that come to one primarily through experience.

For example, when I hired on to my second 747 carrier as an f.o., I was paired with a relatively young, fresh captain. I was older, had been a 747 captain at a previous carrier, and had more hours in the airplane. We landed in Harare, Zimbabwe to pick up a charter. Our APU was inop, so as per standard procedure, we left #4 engine running to supply the pneumatic air we would need to start the other engines. However, when the ground handlers told us there would be a delay of a couple of hours, the captain ordered the engines shut down, saying that we would use a huffer to start. Both the f.e. and I simultaneously objected, both saying in so many words that we couldn't depend on there being a usable huffer in Harare. The captain ignored us and shut down the engines, believing that the capital of a country would surely have such. The fun started when he asked for a huffer to be hooked up for our start. Long story short, what would have been but a two hour delay turned into something like a 10 hour delay. It included hooking up 4 different beat up old huffers to the airplane, but even using the two best at once (the 747 can accommodate 2 hookups) failed. Finally, a mechanic worked on those two best units and managed to get enough pressure to start us.

The captain was a good stick; he just hadn't had enough experience.

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    Hi Terry, I was looking forward to your answer, and you didn't disappoint me! I asked to get the view of an expert like you, and fully agree with your view. – Peter Kämpf Sep 30 '14 at 15:56
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    I'm disturbed that you think a plane that can't start its own engines is airworthy. – Joshua Feb 15 '16 at 17:19
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    @Joshua Dispatching large aircraft with inoperative APUs is common. When the APU is not needed for flight (indeed in many cases cannot even be used in flight), airworthiness is not compromised. There are, in fact, many aircraft that have to have a ground-assist to start. Think of it this way, if performance once is the air is the overriding factor, why would you want to haul into the air all of the weight of the equipment that would allow you to self-start. The problem at Harare wasn't airworthiness, but rather "ground worthiness" if you will of the ground support equipment. – Terry Feb 15 '16 at 19:48
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    I think the core of the answer is here "The money was also very good!". Would you have felt the same if you would have been paid half or less? (that is the ~ situation today w.r.t. 1999) – Federico Aug 23 at 6:47
  • @Federico: I'd think the money would be absolutely irrelevant to questions of proficiency, and fairly irrelevant to the retirement question. I mean, if you were satisfied with making $X at age 59, why wouldn't you be satisfied making it at 61? And if you weren't satisfied, wouldn't you have quit and gone into some more lucrative field long before you reached the age where retirement was an option? – jamesqf Aug 23 at 18:29

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