How Congress Might Ease the Pilot Shortage

Congress is debating how to fix the current pilot shortage, and one idea revolves around retirement age.

older pilot and younger pilot in cockpit of commercial plane
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Here’s one idea proposed in Congress to address the pilot shortage that is adding to travel delays – increase the profession’s mandatory retirement age.

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial pilots to retire by age 65. But Republicans last week introduced legislation that would increase the cutoff age by two years, to 67.

Increasing the pilot retirement age will help curb the recent spate of airline flight delays and cancellations (opens in new tab), say the bill’s main sponsors, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX).

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One recent study shows that North America will be short 12,000 pilots by next year — 13% of how many will be needed.

During the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when travel volumes collapsed, airlines offered early-retirement packages to pilots and other employees. With air travel now rebounding, (opens in new tab) airlines are scrambling to replace those pilots, as well as those who are just now turning 65.

The U.S. has raised the mandatory pilot retirement age before, when the FAA upped it to 65 from 60 in 2007. Graham noted that when the age was increased 15 years ago, "the sky did not fall."

The bill is backed by the Regional Airline Association, the regional airline industry’s lobbying group. Regional airlines have been hit hardest by the pilot shortage. The National Air Carrier Association, which represents low-cost carriers, small cargo airlines and charter services, also supports the measure.

But the Air Line Pilots Association, International, which represents 65,000 pilots at 40 U.S. and Canadian airlines, strongly opposes the bill. The group, which has downplayed the severity of the pilot shortage, says upping the retirement age would increase costs for airlines and introduce unnecessary risks by allowing older pilots to fly.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also says he’s not in favor of the hike in pilots' retirement age, saying in July that the current retirement age is in place "for safety reasons.”

The legislation so far has only Republican cosponsors, so odds of it passing this year, with Democrats in control of the House and Senate, aren’t good. But if the bill doesn’t advance this year, look for Graham and Roy to quickly reintroduce it next year should Republicans gain control of Congress after the November elections.

Sean Lengell
Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter

Sean Lengell covers Congress and government policy for The Kiplinger Letter. Before joining Kiplinger in January 2017 he served as a congressional reporter for eight years with the Washington Examiner and the Washington Times. He previously covered local news for the Tampa (Fla.) Tribune. A native of northern Illinois who spent much of his youth in St. Petersburg, Fla., he holds a bachelor's degree in English from Marquette University.