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Valuing Older Employees

US Airways Crash Proves Senior Pilots Are Safer Than Youngsters

— January 19, 2009 — World
It’s no accident that we’ve had two years’ of U.S. air travel without fatalities. Planes are designed to survive water landings, so they provide several features to keep passengers and crew alive, but don’t discount pilot experience in this equation.

57-year-old Captain Sullenberger’s brilliant piloting helped to ensure that all passengers on the US Airways Airbus survived when it landed in the Hudson River in January 2009. In 1970, he would have been considered too old to fly.

While retirement age has been slowly increasing--from age 45 in 1946 to age 50 in 1955, age 55 in 1964 and age 60 in 1971--it took 36 years of controversy to increase the age limit for airline pilots from 60 to 65 years. The change became effective in December 2007 in light of several studies showing that older pilots are safer pilots. There is quite a body of evidence to prove that the incidence of air accidents decrease as pilot age increases. 

In one study, the 65-69 age group showed an accident rate slightly higher than 60-64, but that older group’s rate was still lower than the under-60 groups. Not all studies agree, but there is a general consensus that older pilots are definitely not more dangerous than young pilots. One study even postulates that retired pilots live longer after retirement than other groups, suggesting that pilots may be far healthier and more able-bodied than commonly thought.

Features built into aircraft depend upon a skilled crew to reach their full potential. In the case of the Airbus, the pilot kept the craft from diving headfirst or from dipping too much tail into the water as it landed. The perfectly-executed belly landing prevented the Airbus from tearing apart upon impact. While all pilots are well-trained and require frequent physical re-certification, I question whether a less-experienced pilot would have had the kind of in-depth knowledge that made the risky water landing successful.

Survival in a plane crash situation is a result of good planning and the opportunity to carry out the procedures designed to ensure its success. Pilots are a big part of that plan. Suitability for command should be determined by physical, psychological and situational testing rather than an arbitrary age, young or old, as the basis for fitness.