James Fitts spent 26 years as a commercial airline pilot. But his career ended abruptly two days before he turned 60, when, like all commercial pilots, he was forced to retire.
"I miss it so much," Fitts said. "I just love hauling people around."At a time when Americans are living longer than ever, when Congress is raising the Social Security retirement age to 67 from 65, and when Sen. John Glenn, 77, is about to go back to outer space, the Federal Aviation Administration is still forcing airline pilots to retire at age 60.
The so-called age-60 rule was put in place in 1959 to promote safety. But the rule was disputed from the beginning, attracting numerous legal challenges and studies that concluded the rule had no medical rationale.
Still, the FAA has steadfastly maintained that despite the growing sophistication of flight simulators and other tests, there is no way to determine whether pilots over 60 might suddenly drop dead in the cockpit or suffer a "subtle degradation" of their mental faculties.
On Monday, the Supreme Court will announce whether it will hear the appeal of a group of pilots who contend that the regulation violates the federal law barring age discrimination. But even if the court chooses not to take up the case, the older pilots have vowed to fight on.
"If Glenn can go into space at 77, why can't we fly to Cleveland at 60?" said Bert Yetman, 65, the president of the Professional Pilots Federation.
The answer, according to former FAA officials, airline executives and sympathetic younger pilots, is not concerns about safety but politics. They say the Air Line Pilots Association, which represents most commercial pilots, is concerned that allowing older pilots to fly longer would make it more difficult for its younger members to move up the ranks .
"It's not a medical issue," said Donald Engen, the FAA head in the mid-1980s. "The younger guys want the older guys out because they want to be captain."