GILLETTE, Wyo. — Gillette’s local airport officials said they support a bill in Congress that would raise the mandatory retirement age for pilots from 65 to 67.
Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport Executive Director Todd Chatfield said March 23 that SkyWest, which services the airport, is having difficulty retaining pilots.
“This is a solution that can immediately help mitigate this problem that is affecting airports around the state,” he said. “This is an appropriate option to help the shortage, and I thank Senator Lummis for sponsoring the bill.”
Northeast Wyoming Regional Airport Board President Owen Lindblom said that with a 1st class medical certificate that is required every six months and the FAA and airline qualification requirements, he doesn’t think safety will be compromised. He said he’s more concerned about younger, less experienced pilots making mistakes.
“It will take time to get enough experienced pilots to fill in behind the ones that either retire or [are] forced to retire,” he said.
Regional Airline Association President and CEO Faye Malarkey Black said in a statement that the legislation’s crucial to addressing a growing shortage of pilots and airline captains that’s devastated small community air service across the country.
Regional airlines provide 64% of air service in Wyoming, according to the association. Nationally, these airlines operate 41% of scheduled passenger flights and provide the only scheduled air service to two-thirds of airports. She said 324 airports have lost an average of one-third of their air service and 53 airports have lost more than half of their air service. Fourteen airports have lost all flights.
Black said that long-term policy solutions must focus on pilot training and career access. Nevertheless, short-term solutions are also necessary.
“Raising the pilot retirement age keeps experienced pilots—particularly, Captains—in place and will have an immediate, positive impact on the pilot shortage,” she said. “Additionally, as airlines of all sizes address ‘juniority’ in the pilot workforce, raising the retirement age keeps experienced pilots in the flight deck where they are needed to mentor and share their expertise, helping to create a strong foundation for the next generation.”
She said that having a mandatory retirement age of 65 forces healthy pilots to retire two years ahead of their full Social Security retirement age.
“This outdated mandate defies positive health trends and improved medical diagnostics and preventive tools allowing people to live longer, healthier lives,” she said.
Pilots over age 65 are serving in U.S. airline Part 135 and charter operations, she said. Part 135 operations vary from small commuter planes to cargo planes, according to the FAA.
Canada has no mandatory retirement age, and Japan has a retirement age of 68, Black said.
Air service loss means fewer destinations, less frequency, longer layovers, more connections, more delays and cancelations, reduced convenience and higher costs for passengers, she said. It makes it more challenging for communities to attract investment, generate employment and provide mobility and vital services to residents.
However, the Air Line Pilots Association, International union said in a fact sheet that increasing the retirement age will increase risk in aviation and won’t effectively address the pilot shortage.
“Most regional airline pilots leave the regional industry long before age 65 for more lucrative jobs at mainline or low-cost carriers or other opportunities,” the association said. “Therefore, the pool of domestic-service pilots will not increase appreciably without additional training costs or disruptions.”
Airlines for America Communications Manager Hannah Walden said mainline pilot employment rose 10% from 2019 to 2022. A4A’s member passenger carriers are Alaska, American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest and United.
“U.S. airlines recognize the importance of securing a pipeline of new employees – including pilots, flight attendants, mechanics and others – to accommodate growing demand for air travel across the country and around the globe,” she said.
Carriers have been creating new pilot training programs, enhancing recruitment efforts, tapping into communities to increase diversity of gender and race and implementing programs to address financial hurdles, she said.
“U.S. airlines have also trimmed their schedules to improve operational reliability and adjusted their staffing models to account for the time it takes to hire and train new employees,” she said.
As of January, U.S. passenger airlines employed more than 478,000 workers, a 20-year high, she said.
United Airlines directed County 17 to Airlines for America for comment. SkyWest didn’t respond by press time March 23.