Pilots around the world have expensive careers that require many years of education and training before they can enter commercial service. Even after many get started, they may not be making salaries that help pay back the money they spent on accruing required flight hours until they get a coveted job with large commercial airlines.
So it’s little surprise that once pilots have that job, they’re eager to stay and earn the pay increases that come with seniority. But that time is limited.
The International Civil Aviation Authority (ICAO) sets the maximum retirement age at 65, which the FAA has adopted. However, some local civil aviation authorities have extended that age to address a shortage of pilots in their markets.
Japan’s civil aviation authority raised the mandatory retirement age to 67 in 2015, and the Civil Aviation Administration of China, which currently sets the maximum retirement age at 60, is considering extending that age, too.
Pilot Retirement Ages at Different Airlines
Individual airlines may have different retirement ages, within the specified limits, to ensure they have enough pilots to support their operations. But all have strict health and skills testing requirements to ensure individual pilots — regardless of age — are qualified to fly.
Some pilots associations around the world are pushing for airlines to keep more of their senior pilots onboard. This is in part because the age to qualify for state retirement income is higher than the mandatory pilot retirement age, but some associations also make a case that keeping more experienced senior pilots onboard — who have learned to fly without the help of advanced digital systems — is better for aviation safety. The contributions of more senior pilots may be in training, if not directly in the cockpit.
“I do feel like a mandatory retirement age is a good idea because motor skills and overall physical vitality diminish with age,” says commercial airline Captain Chris Manno. “Presently in the U.S. the mandatory retirement age is 65 and due to the predicted pilot shortage, there’s talk of raising that to 67, although I have yet to hear anything official on that.”
Manno has had a long piloting career which began by flying as a 727 Flight Engineer, and moved up to flying the DC-10 as a Flight Engineer in only a few months. He became First Officer flying an MD-80 after his first year, and First Officer on the DC-10 in his fifth year of piloting. By the sixth year of his career he had made it to Captain flying the MD-80, and also flew F-100 as Captain for two years before returning to the MD-80 for twelve years. He has been working as a 737 Captain since 2010.
“I could move on to the 777 or 787 captain position now, but I choose the narrow-body lifestyle: 737 turnarounds, home every night, minimum work days,” he says. “Every 777 and 787 trip has at least one red-eye leg — the South American flying has two — and at least three days away from home per trip. That’s physically exhausting. One pilot friend told me after any long-haul trip, ‘You don’t use power tools.’ That would make my present routine of running, weight lifting and biking impossible, and that physical regimen is key to my well being.”
The physical drain and mental strain that Manno refers to are why the retirement age rules exist, and also why there are strict rules for pilot rest hours between flights. But there are also good aspects to the pilot’s career, which is why many want to keep flying as long as they are allowed.
“The main advantages are probably the high income and schedule flexibility associated with longevity at a particular airline,” Manno says. “But those who get hired late — say their 40s or 50s — will not enjoy either advantage. I’ve been with my airline for 32.5 years and have an ideal flying schedule: 13 days a month, home every night. That’s hard to give up. But, I’ve been a captain for over 26 years. Many pilots in their late 50s and early 60s who make captain will have to endure the junior schedules I did at first as well: red-eyes, on-call, four-day trips, 16 or more days a month. So, if you’re very senior, it’s hard to give up the airline career. If not, extending the career might not make sense.”
What Pilots Do After They Retire
After retiring, many pilots pursue second careers as flight trainers or find other jobs in aviation, but Manno has no such plans.
“Absolutely not,” he says. “When I retire, I want no more check rides, procedures tests, evaluations, FAA scrutiny, flight physicals — none of that. I plan to walk away, to be done flying and call it good. There are so many other interesting things to do.”
Manno is a unique case because he hasn’t limited his current career to piloting. He also holds a PhD in English, is a novelist and cartoonist, and teaches as an adjunct professor at Texas Wesleyan University — a post he’s held since 2002.
“At around the 15-year mark in my airline career, I decided there just had to be more to life than climb, cruise, descent and landing.” At that point, he started on a doctorate in rhetoric and literature at Texas Christian University, which he completed seven years later. Manno says that academia is a wholly different world from the skies, which balances the “strictly by rules and regulations” life. “Academia and the English lit studies have given me entry to this very fulfilling world that is both rich and a perfect compliment to the strict and arcane sphere of an airline pilot.”