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FAA’S Age 60 Commercial Pilot Rule

STATEMENT OF

JON L. JORDAN, M.D.,
FEDERAL AIR SURGEON,
FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION,

BEFORE THE

SENATE COMMITTEE ON COMMERCE, SCIENCE, AND TRANSPORTATION,
SUBCOMMITTEE ON AVIATION,

ON

THE FAA’S AGE 60 COMMERCIAL PILOT RULE

JULY 19, 2005

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to discuss the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) Age-60 rule, which provides that a pilot may not engage in what are known as part 121 operations if the pilot has reached his 60th birthday.  Part 121 covers operations of large commercial passenger aircraft, smaller propeller aircraft with 10 or more passenger seats, and common carriage operations of all-cargo aircraft with a payload capacity of 7500 pounds.  I am accompanied today by my colleague, Jim Ballough, Director of FAA’s Flight Standards Service.

The Age-60 rule represents the FAA's best determination of the time when a general decline in health-related functions and overall cognitive and performance capabilities may begin and reach a level where a pilot's judgement and physical ability may begin to decline and therefore jeopardize safety.  Our rule means that a pilot who reaches age 60 must leave part 121 operations, but it does not mean that he or she can no longer play an important role in aviation.  Many pilots continue to work for part 121 airlines in the screening, recruitment and training of pilot applicants, serve as flight engineers, or fly in non-part 121 operations, or become flight instructors, or, fortunately for us, work as safety inspectors for the FAA.

Since its adoption in 1959, the FAA has reviewed the Age-60 rule several times to determine whether new and sufficient evidence exists to warrant a reconsideration of the regulation.  The FAA has also successfully defended the rule in several administrative and judicial challenges. 

FAA has conducted five studies on the relationship of pilot age to accidents between 1999 and 2004.  The first four studies were conducted at the direction of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which requested in 1999 that the FAA study and provide data regarding relative accident rates based on pilot age.  The FAA's Civil Aerospace Medical Institute (CAMI) conducted a four-part study.  The four studies were as follows:  1) an annotated bibliography of the scientific literature (1990-1999); 2) a re-analysis of the Chicago Tribune study data (1999) relating pilot age and accident rates; 3) an empirical analysis of accident rates by pilot age for professional pilots holding Air Transport Pilot (ATP) and Class 1 medical certificates between 1988 and 1997; and, 4) an empirical analysis of accident rates by pilot age for professional pilots holding ATP or Commercial Pilot and Class 1 or Class 2 medical certificates between 1988 and 1997.

Certain aspects of the analytic methodology used in the third and fourth studies were criticized in the open scientific literature.  In response, the first author for those studies, Dr. Dana Broach of CAMI, re-analyzed the accident rate data.  That study was published in 2004.  The 2004 study used more restrictive criteria to select which accidents to include in the analysis than were used in the previous studies.  Taken together, the criteria resulted in an “apples-to-apples” comparison of accident rates for pilots age 60-63 and younger pilots in that the accident and non-accident pilots had the same credentials, worked for the same employers, and operated complex, multi-engine commuter or larger aircraft now covered by Part 121.  As in the previous studies, the data were aggregated by age group (in five-year increments) and year, and analyzed with the same statistical technique. 

The results of the 2004 study were similar to those reported in the third and fourth empirical studies previously reported to Congress.  Overall, accident rate increased with pilot age.  The patterns of findings across the three empirical studies are similar – there appears to be a relationship between pilot age and accident rate.  The consistency of this finding across the three empirical studies suggests that changes to the Age 60 rule should be approached cautiously.

I must emphasize that before making any change to a safety rule, the FAA must be satisfied that the regulation will maintain or raise the current level of safety.  What is clear to us from reviewing public comments and relevant literature concerning the Age-60 rule is that there is no single "right answer."  What is also clear is that the question for the FAA is one of public safety and determining acceptable risk.  At this time, the FAA cannot be assured that changing the Age-60 rule will maintain or raise the level of safety. 

At some age, every individual reaches a level of increased infirmity leading to decreased reliability.  That age will vary from person to person but cannot yet be predicted in a specific individual.  While science does not absolutely dictate the age of 60 for commercial passenger pilot retirement, that age is within the age range during which sharp increases in disease mortality and morbidity occur.  Clearly, there is a progressive anatomic, physiological, and cognitive decline associated with aging, albeit variable in severity and onset among individuals.  There is no absolute, scientific formula that may be readily applied.

It is indisputable that, as people age, they experience more illnesses and disorders, and suffer more cognitive decline.  Cardiovascular disease rises with age, steeply, beginning between ages 55 and 65, and, though mortality has dropped since 1960, cardiovascular disease remains the most frequent cause of death in pilots and the general population.  With this increased incidence of cardiovascular disease in the older population, the risk for unexpected events that could be a threat to safety of flight is increased.  Cardiac events (e.g., heart attacks, heart failure) during flight have continued to occur in low but fairly consistent numbers over the years and have caused general aviation accidents.

Other health conditions are known to increase in incidence or to become more complicated with aging.  Many present greater difficulties of detection and risk assessment than do cardiovascular disease.  Among these are cerebrovascular disease; malignancies; endocrine dysfunction; neurological disorders; psychiatric disorders, including depression; and decline in sensory and motor capabilities.  There has been an increasing awareness of the more subtle adverse conditions affecting performance, such as those related to cognitive functioning.

The “Age 60 rule” has served well as a regulatory limit in the United States.  It remains the best determination that can be made of the time when a general decline in health-related functions and overall cognitive capabilities has reached a level where decrements in a pilot's performance may jeopardize safety.  The “Age 60 rule” has been repeatedly reviewed to determine whether new and sufficient evidence exists to warrant a reconsideration of the regulation.  Studies conducted to date do not present sufficient information that would address concerns about negatively impacting the current level of safety by changing the rule. 

The FAA has invited the public to provide comments on the viability of the “Age 60 rule.”  The most recent comment period was opened in September 2002 in relation to a petition for exemption to the rule filed by a coalition of U.S. pilots approaching age 60.  Nearly 7,000 comments were submitted during the month-long open comment period.  Overwhelmingly, the comments favored retaining the current “Age 60 rule.”  They cited safety and medical issues most often as reasons for retention of the current rule. 

Several U.S. Courts of Appeals have reviewed the “Age 60 rule” and studies related to the rule.  Uniformly, these courts have denied petitioners’ requests for relief from the rule.  In September 2004, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit refused to review FAA’s denial of a petition for exemptions from the rule.  In May 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear arguments on the same matter.

In recent years several bills to revise the age limit for airliner pilots have been introduced.  In February 2001, a bill to modify the “Age 60 rule” by increasing the age limit to age 65 was referred to the House Subcommittee on Aviation.  In March 2001, a bill to modify the “Age 60 rule” to age 63 was favorably reported by this Committee.  Neither bill was ultimately enacted.  Most recently, legislation was proposed earlier this year that would tie an age limit for air carrier pilots to Social Security retirement age eligibility. 

Modifying the long-standing baseline of age 60 in the U.S. requires that the public be shown how such modification would maintain an equivalent level of safety.  The “Age 60 rule” is a long-standing operational rule that pre-dates subsequent studies completed over the years.  None of the studies completed since implementation of the rule provide satisfactory data that conclusively supports changing the rule.  No protocols exist to reliably predict when or whether an over-age-60 pilot might experience a medical event that could jeopardize aviation safety.  With inconclusive data and no practical experience with pilots above age 60, the FAA does not agree, at this time, to modify the current age limit for airliner pilots. 

Mr. Chairman, the FAA will develop regulations in the context of what is best for public safety.  The FAA's primary mission is ensuring the safety of the National Airspace System.  We work hard to manage a growth oriented aviation system--and the constraints on the system that growth imposes--in the most efficient and safe way possible.  The FAA establishes, through our regulations, basic safety standards for aircraft and crewmembers that will ensure the safety of our traveling public.  We construct our regulations very carefully, taking into account as many factors as we can, but ultimately, always making the decision that will best enhance aviation safety.  While economic factors are certainly a part of that calculation, I am sure the Committee and our colleagues in industry would agree that safety must be the top priority.

That concludes my prepared remarks.  I would be happy to answer any questions the Committee may have.

Witness: 
JON L. JORDAN, M.D., FEDERAL AIR SURGEON, FEDERAL AVIATION ADMINISTRATION
Testimony Mode: 
Testimony Date: 
Tuesday, July 19, 2005
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