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Changing pilots' retirement age is being looked at as a way to fix staffing issues

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Airlines blame the high number of flight cancellations this summer in part on staffing shortages, especially among pilots. Some in the industry and in Congress are now calling for big changes, such as raising the retirement age for pilots. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: I'm standing in a terminal at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, one of the world's busiest. And it is busier here this summer than at any time during the pandemic. But the number of flights operating here is still far below 2019 levels. There are almost 25% fewer flights, as regional airlines have had to cut a lot of service to smaller airports all across the country, all because of what the regional airlines say is a huge shortage of pilots.

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LINDSEY GRAHAM: We have a crisis when it comes to airline travel. We're suffering because of this.

SCHAPER: That's South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham at his home state's Greenville-Spartanburg Airport.

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GRAHAM: Airlines have to make decisions. So when you have less pilots, you got to pick what routes to fly. And regional airports, like Greenville and throughout other smaller communities, suffer the most.

SCHAPER: Department of Transportation figures show that more than 30 small airports nationwide have lost more than half of the flight service they used to have, including airports in Toledo, Ohio, Lincoln, Neb. and Rochester, Minn. Drew Lemos is with the Regional Airlines Association.

DREW LEMOS: There are approximately 500 fewer regional aircraft operating today than at the end of 2019. This represents a loss of a quarter of the regional fleet. Five hundred parked aircraft equates to a deficiency of approximately 5,000 pilots.

SCHAPER: So to keep the industry from losing even more pilots, Graham is sponsoring legislation that would raise the mandatory airline pilot retirement age from 65 to 67.

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GRAHAM: In the next two years, 5,000 pilots will be aged out, not because they're unsafe, just simply because they reach 65. My legislation would allow pilots to continue to fly if they meet the qualifications. We're not dumbing down anything.

SCHAPER: But the unions representing airline pilots disagree.

DENNIS TAJER: It's a bad idea. And it doesn't solve the problem.

SCHAPER: Captain Dennis Tajer is a 737 pilot for American Airlines and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association. We caught up at O'Hare after he flew a 737 to Newark and back. And he contends the air travel problems this summer are not simply because of a shortage of pilots.

TAJER: There's a shortage of plans. Management did not plan for this recovery. To save money, they incentivize pilots to retire early. And they never started training the pilots that would fill those other seats.

SCHAPER: Tajer and others also bring up safety concerns, citing research showing that cognitive abilities decline as we age. When recently asked about increasing the mandatory retirement age, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby noted that more than a third of his airline's pilots that are 64 years old already cannot fly because of medical reasons. And Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg echoed such concerns recently on Fox News Sunday.

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PETE BUTTIGIEG: Look; these retirement ages are there for a reason. And the reason is safety. I'm not going to be on board with anything that could compromise safety.

SCHAPER: Elizabeth Bjerke is an aviation professor and associate dean at the University of North Dakota. She doesn't doubt that some airline pilots would be able to continue flying safely after turning 65. But she says, at best, it's only a short-term fix.

ELIZABETH BJERKE: I do think it might be a distraction to the bigger issue of needing to increase and inspire the next generation of pilots.

SCHAPER: Another proposal aimed at quickly increasing the number of airline pilots is to reduce the 1,500 hours of flight time required for airline pilot certification. But Bjerke and others point out that the U.S. has enjoyed an unprecedented period of commercial airline safety since that 1,500-hour rule and other safety regulations went into effect a decade ago. And she notes that most aspiring commercial airline pilots earn their flight hours by working as flight instructors. So luring them to the airlines prematurely could exacerbate the pilot shortage.

BJERKE: Could we lower that hour requirement and have pilots still be successful at the airlines? Probably. But we need to look at the bigger picture when trying to solve the pilot supply issue, as we need qualified flight instructors to train that one-on-one flight training to be able to produce the future generation of pilots.

SCHAPER: Bjerke and others argue that both reducing flight hours and increasing the pilot retirement age are not long-term solutions to the pilot shortage. But as passenger frustrations this summer grow over chronic flight delays and cancellations, Congress may feel compelled to act on the pilot proposals.

David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.