GOP Lawmakers Introduce Bill To Raise U.S. Pilot Retirement Age To 67

American Airlines pilots
Credit: American Airlines

Republicans in the House and Senate have introduced legislation to raise the mandatory retirement age for U.S. commercial airline pilots from 65 to 67 years old, part of an effort to head off a deepening shortfall of qualified pilots in coming years.

The “Let Experienced Pilots Fly Act” was introduced in both chambers of Congress on July 25 along partisan lines with no support from Democratic lawmakers. The bill is sponsored by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) in the Senate and Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) in the House with four GOP senators and five House Republicans acting as co-sponsors. 

In addition to raising the mandatory retirement age to 67, the legislation would require that pilots older than 65 maintain a first-class medical certification that must be renewed every six months. Beyond age, the bill does not seek to modify any other requirements to become a commercial pilot.

In a press conference held July 25 at Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport (GSP), Sen. Graham framed the effort as a means to address the regional pilot shortage that has led to service cuts at smaller airports around the country. He noted that GSP has lost 17% of its 2019 levels of service, while other South Carolina airports like Columbia Metropolitan Airport and Florence Regional Airport are down 24% and 27%, respectively.

Graham also warned the crisis affecting small community air service will only get worse unless action is taken, pointing to 5,000 anticipated pilot retirements over the next two years, and 14,000 over the next four years. Within 15 years, half of all the airline pilots serving today will reach retirement age, Graham said. 

“We have a crisis today when it comes to air travel,” Graham told reporters. “We have a pilot shortage, and those who say we don’t—well they’re just full of it—because they’re misleading the public.”

The bill has support from the Regional Airline Association (RAA), the National Air Carrier Association and the San Antonio International Airport. 

“There are approximately 500 fewer regional aircraft operating today than in 2018. That equates to a deficiency of approximately 5,000 pilots,” RAA Senior Director for Government Affairs Drew Lemos told reporters. “The shortage has meant that 71% of the airports that have commercial air service have seen a decline in flights.”

But the proposal faces stiff opposition from pilot unions. The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA)—which denies there is a pilot shortage—in May adopted a resolution opposing any effort to increase the retirement age, citing “significant unintended consequences to aviation safety and the pilot workforce as a whole.”

“The plain truth is that airlines should take responsibility for their business decisions to cut or reduce service to less-profitable markets while adding service to high-demand communities,” ALPA President Joe DePete said in a statement. “Instead, they’re making excuses that aren’t supported in fact or, far worse, calling for regulation rollbacks that would threaten safety.”

The effort faces an uphill battle to become law given its lack of support among Democratic lawmakers who currently control both chambers of Congress. But Graham promised the bill would be taken up by the Senate if Republicans win back control of the upper chamber in November’s midterm elections.

Ben Goldstein

Based in Washington, Ben covers Congress, regulatory agencies, the Departments of Justice and Transportation and lobby groups.