New law too late for some

The Baltimore Sun

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Bud Speace of Lenexa, Kan., has a pilot job waiting for him in Kazakhstan, if he wants to accept a six-weeks-on, two-weeks-off schedule for Air Astana.

Jim Hathcoat of Olathe, Kan., prefers to stay closer to home, so he's scouting pilot options for small, executive aircraft charters.

Both men were among the United States' most experienced pilots until they were pushed out of their jobs last year - Speace from America West and Hathcoat from Frontier Airlines.

They had to retire because a Federal Aviation Administration regulation required retirement at age 60 for pilots of U.S. commercial air carriers.

"International pilots up to age 65 could fly through U.S. space, but we couldn't," Hathcoat said. "That didn't make sense."

In December, Congress overturned the FAA rule, bringing the United States in line with international rules that set 65 as the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots.

But the change came too late for Speace, Hathcoat and thousands of senior pilots like them. In fact, the language in the new law essentially prevents them from doing what they did before.

The new law, which sped through both houses of Congress and the White House in three days prior to the congressional holiday recess, specifically bars about 3,000 pilots - who were forcibly retired between Nov. 23, 2006, and Dec. 13, 2007 - from being rehired at their same seniority levels.

The senior pilots scoff at the law's title: the Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act.

It was not fair, they say.

Furthermore, they believe it contains an unconstitutional provision that bars them from taking their grievance to any court.

"I just don't see how Congress can do that," said Lew Tetlow, a founder and president of the Senior Pilots Coalition, formed earlier last year to advocate for increasing the FAA's mandatory retirement age to 65.

Details like the no-legal-recourse clause apparently escaped the notice of many members of the House and Senate who passed the act - unanimously and without debate or objection. President Bush signed the bill into law on the night after it left Congress.

The new law refocused the senior pilots' attention. Previously, they were upset at the FAA for not raising the retirement age. Now, their ire is largely directed at their brethren in the Air Line Pilots Association for lobbying for the language found in the new law.

"Unfortunately, our worst fears came to pass. ALPA threw us under the bus," Speace said, in reference to the union that represents about 60,000 U.S. pilots.

"Your union's leaders exerted extensive influence on the legislation that is now law," the association's executive board wrote on its Web site message to union members the day after Bush affixed his signature, adding, "ALPA appreciates President Bush for swiftly signing this piece of legislation into law."

Association members, most of them younger and with less seniority than the Vietnam-era pilots who hit mandatory retirement, had little interest in raising the retirement age and had said so in association polling.

Pilots with the most seniority get access to better flight schedules and route priorities. With fewer older pilots, younger pilots could have less competition and more options.

Former FAA Administrator Marion Blakely said last year that the time had come to raise the age-60 rule. There was no safety reason to prohibit capable U.S. pilots from flying airliners after age 60.

But the FAA didn't change the regulation, partly, Blakely acknowledged in a speech last year, because the pilots union didn't want it changed.

Instead, the Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act zoomed through Congress without debate and with the provisions that barred pilots who were retired between Nov. 23, 2006, and Dec. 13, 2007, from being reinstated with seniority.

The new law, with an extremely limited exception, said that any pilot who wished to be rehired by an airline would have to apply and start over as a new hire at the bottom of the pay and seniority scale.

Members of the Senior Pilots Coalition say they understand why the airlines, represented by the Air Transport Association, would want to hold down costs by hiring younger, lower-paid pilots and by not having to invest in federally required training programs for any over-60 returnees.

"Even with 25,000 hours of flying time, I'd have to start over as a new hire," Hathcoat said. "Airlines, like any company, want a good return on their investment. What return would they get on training dollars for a 61-year-old compared to a younger pilot?"

So, even though the law now says they can fly as commercial pilots until age 65, Hathcoat, Speace, Tetlow and others doubt they'll get airline jobs in the United States. Some of their senior colleagues, they say, have reapplied at airlines and been rejected.

Tetlow, a resident of New Hampshire who said "100 percent" of his workdays have been devoted to coalition work since he was retired in May from US Airways, is leading the senior pilots' efforts to get the new law thrown out.

The senior pilots are being assisted by Jonathan Turley at George Washington University Law School. Turley is pursuing legal options to get the new law declared null and void and find relief for the affected pilots.

Meanwhile, Hathcoat said, the senior pilots are left in a sort of limbo.

"We can't get our old jobs back, can't draw reduced Social Security benefits for another three years or full benefits until 66," he said. "Now how crazy is that?"

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