Breaking Age Barriers

When Robert Coupe lost his job last year as a pilot with Federal Express, it had nothing to do with performance. Instead, it had to do with age. Mr. Coupe turned 60 and, under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules, was therefore no longer eligible to fly. Coupe now works as a flight engineer for Federal Express, but he is suing the company to get his old job back.

Coupe isn't the only one who believes the age-60 rule should be overturned. The 2,500-member Professional Pilots Federation has filed a lawsuit in federal court asking for that. A ruling on both cases is expected this year.

The FAA says the age-60 rule, set in 1959, promotes safety by weeding out older pilots whose abilities are expected to erode as they age. Yet, in order to keep flying, younger and older pilots alike are put through regular examinations that test their flying ability as well their mental and physical fitness. Naturally, anyone who fails is no longer eligible to pilot a plane.

Automatically assuming that pilots who have reached the age of 60 are in imminent danger of losing these skills - or already have - not only is unfair to the pilots but also to the airlines, who are forced to give up some of their most experienced, highly skilled flyers.

Many stereotypes about aging have been broken in the 38 years since the age-60 rule was put in place. Last November, for example, Storey Musgrave, at age 61, became the oldest astronaut on a space flight. NASA's standards for such flights are high, but it has no mandatory retirement age. The FAA should take note.

The agency's first mission must be the safety of the flying public. But, if older pilots can pass regular exams testing their mental and physical fitness, there is no reason they are not fit to remain at the controls and help fulfill that mission.

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