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Fifty-nine-year-old Paul Turner, a US Airways captain for two decades, is being forced by the airline to retire on his birthday, in September. For Turner and other pilots nearing age 60 their professional fate is sealed: Federal Aviation Administration rules stipulate that pilots above 60 years of age cannot fly commercial passengers or cargo planes for safety reasons. “I don’t want to go,” says Turner, whose father, a former pilot for Pan American Airways, was forced out of the cockpit on his 60th birthday, in 1979. “I’m still capable of doing the job.” Still, the skies are looking friendlier for pilots like Turner. The lobby opposed to the FAA age restrictions, once inconsistent and sporadic in its Capitol Hill presence, has gained footing in recent months due to a confluence of events. Companion bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to increase the age restriction to 65, a more palatable political compromise for pilots eager to collect a greater amount of retirement money. Power lobby shop Patton Boggs has jumped into the fray with former Louisiana Sen. John Breaux (D) and ex-Secretary of Transportation Rodney Slater lending their muscle to the debate. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the United Nations of the aviation industry, recently established age 65 as the world standard for pilots. And the Air Line Pilots Association International (ALPA), the world’s largest airline pilot union as well as the long-standing roadblock to changing the age restriction, is currently distracted with other high-profile issues, most notably foreign control of U.S. airlines. Proponents of lifting the regulation say that for the first time there’s an opening for them to make significant inroads. “All roads lead to ALPA, and they are in a position now where they have little positive political influence [on this issue],” says Bob Lavender, a 56-year-old pilot who has flown with FedEx Corp. since 1989. “People are beginning to see this [age rule] as an act of discrimination.” ALPA has had a cagey history with the FAA regulation. For 20 years the union fought the age restriction, which went into effect in 1960, even suing the regulatory body on the grounds that it did not have the authority to implement the rule. But in the late 1970s the demographics of the group started changing as ALPA acquired a more youthful membership eager to move into the captain’s seat more quickly. One way of achieving that goal, opponents of the age restriction assert, was to force pilots out at age 60. ALPA eventually changed its position and endorsed the rule in 1980. Since then, ALPA’s clout has continued to grow. In 2005 the union spent more than $1 million to lobby the Senate on a host of issues, including keeping the age-60 restriction intact. To hear ALPA discuss the current age restriction, the union has fought the battle for more than two decades and has been forced to accept it as the status quo. “I don’t know what our government affairs [section] does day by day, but our position, which goes back over 20 years, is known,” says John Mazor, an ALPA spokesman. “It’s not like we have to do an educational campaign to let everyone know what we think on Capitol Hill.” Mazor dismisses assertions that maintaining the age-60 rule is no longer a priority for ALPA. “This is not something we’ve slacked off on,” says Mazor. “Those kinds of bills [changing the age restriction] have been around for a long time, and we’ve consistently lobbied against them.” Yet advocates of changing the restriction are pressing ahead. The lobby strategy, according to many involved in trying to lift the ban, is to neutralize ALPA, their chief opponent. “We’ve had congressmen from both sides tell us if you get ALPA to go along with us they’d change the rule overnight,” says Bert Yetman, president of the Professional Pilots Federation. TURBULENCE AT THE TOP An effort is under way to replace ALPA President Duane Woerth, who has served two four-year terms. Dan Brannan, a member of ALPA for 16 years, is challenging Woerth, who is up for re-election this October. “I think Duane’s well intentioned but disconnected,” says Brannan, a 58-year-old pilot who has flown with DHL Airways/ASTAR for 22 years. “He hasn’t flown an airplane for at least 16 years, and I don’t think you can spend your whole career in Washington and be very well informed or in touch with the guys who are out there.” The age restriction is an issue for Brannan, though it’s not the sole motivator for him. Woerth has been criticized for his leadership, particularly for signing off on a March 2002 letter of understanding with Air Canada Jazz, whose pilots are members of ALPA. The Canadian airline says its pilots who are 65 or younger have the right to fly into the United States, and it has demanded that they be able to keep that provision as members of ALPA. “It’s hard to speak out of one end of your mouth in Washington and another in Toronto,” says Robert Land, senior vice president for government affairs at Jet Blue, a carrier that supports changing the restriction. But Mazor, the ALPA spokesman, says opponents are “grasping at straws,” adding that it is extremely rare for an ALPA president not to sign off on a contract. Additionally, lobbyists are stressing to wayward lawmakers that this is not a fundamental change but one that is merely bringing the United States in line with the international standard established by ICAO, which is set to take effect in November. “The majority of the time we can convince them that we are safe,” says Gary Cottingham of Airline Pilots Against Age Discrimination (APAAD), the grass-roots organization that Patton Boggs has registered with the Senate to lobby for. “Believe it or not, those who have reservations do so because of ALPA’s position.” Adds Land: “Half the people we are talking to are over 60 themselves. We always ask them, �How would you like if the clerk of the Senate escorted you out of the Senate on your 60th birthday?’ It’s a very compelling argument.” Cottingham says his group’s political contacts at Patton Boggs, notably Breaux and Slater, have been helpful. He adds that the firm “would probably work for us for nothing” because Breaux was such a supporter of the APAAD when he was in the Senate. “Philosophically, they are in tune with what we are doing,” he adds. The firm declined to comment beyond confirming it is representing the APAAD. While ALPA may not be working this issue as aggressively as it once did, the union’s clout on the Hill remains substantial. David Schaffer, a former senior counsel and staff director for the House Subcommittee on Aviation, notes that Democrats have always been sympathetic with ALPA’s positions because of their historical alliance with unions. Additionally, a number of Republicans on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hail from the Northeast and have traditionally been supportive. “ALPA usually has a sympathetic case: �We fly you there safely. We are telling you if we do this it will be less safe. Don’t put your safety at risk,’ ” says Schaffer. The FAA agrees. “We can’t be assured that if we raise the limit we would be able to raise or maintain the level of safety, and our foremost role is to protect the public,” says Alison Duquette, spokeswoman for the FAA. “We are open to new scientific research, but we’ve never been able to see any scientific consensus.” And complicating the case for those seeking to change the regulation are differing opinions among pilots. One 58-year-old American Airlines pilot, who asked to remain anonymous, is just fine with the restriction. “I think it’s a demanding job that requires an early retirement, and I’m looking forward to it,” he says. But for pilots like Turner this is an emotional issue, and they want the option to keep flying. “My dad is 87 years old and still doing quite well,” Turner says. “He took his retirement stoically. He never complained about it, but he was heartbroken.”
Joe Crea can be contacted at [email protected].

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