Flying past age barriers

The friendly skies have just become friendlier to older airline pilots. Instead of clipping their wings at age 60 – the current rule – the Federal Aviation Administration will let them fly until 65, marking the latest change in attitudes about age and ability.

The decision, which is expected to become law in about two years, has been a heated issue in the airline industry. Those in favor of raising the mandatory retirement age point out that pilots today are typically healthier and fitter than those in 1960, when the 60-and-out rule was established. It is a waste of valuable experience, they say, to ban pilots from the cockpit prematurely. No such restrictions apply to pilots of corporate jets, cargo planes, and private planes. Opponents, whose ranks include some pilots and airlines, counter that the reflexes and skills of older pilots may not be as sharp, putting passengers at risk.

Yet safeguards exist. If one pilot in the cockpit is over 60, the other must be under 60. And all must pass stringent physical and flying exams.

The change will come too late to benefit the estimated 1,800 pilots who face mandatory retirement this year. But eventually it will bring pilots in the United States in line with those in other countries. Last fall, the International Civil Aviation Organization raised its mandatory retirement age for pilots to 65.

Attitudes about age have changed markedly since 1965, when a Department of Labor report revealed that more than half of all job openings were not available to those 55 and over because of some employers' refusal to hire older workers.

Two years later, in 1967, the landmark Age Discrimination in Employment Act was passed, prohibiting mandatory retirement in most sectors. At the time, one senator even expressed the hope that it would serve as "a new Magna Carta for older people." Since then barriers have been falling and stereotypes have been challenged.

Over the years the law has played a role in a growing redefinition of a person's later years. It is part of a greater willingness to view maturity and experience as an advantage, not a liability, as the FAA ruling shows. But the progress made by pilots also serves as a reminder of changes still needed elsewhere.

The most blatant forms of age discrimination, including forced retirements, have largely disappeared. But age prejudice remains and can be difficult to document, workplace specialists say.

While age discrimination laws have helped older workers stay on the job, some face challenges in being hired by a new employer when they lose a job. Studies show that many employers still hold skeptical attitudes and stereotypes about older workers. Yet every age group includes people with varied abilities.

As a further measure of the need for progress, the number of age bias complaints filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ranged from 13,000 to 19,000 a year in the past decade.

The task ahead will be to continue supporting and solidifying that "Magna Carta for older people" by breaking down barriers, opening doors, and challenging negative assumptions and imagined limitations in every field. Ability, not age, remains the best test for employment.

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