FAA boss reacts to calls to raise pilots' mandatory retirement age

FAA head Mike Whitaker spoke out on pilots' mandatory retirement age at House hearing

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) leader reacted Tuesday to calls to raise the mandatory retirement age of airline pilots from 65 to 67.

A letter dated Monday, Feb. 5, bearing the name and signature of FAA Administrator Michael Whitaker, sent to Senate Commerce Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., and Ranking Member Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said "it is crucial to provide the agency an opportunity to conduct research and determine mitigations" before making such a move.

At a Tuesday House committee hearing, however, Whitaker indicated that he did not actually write the letter.

When asked by Rep. Troy Nehls, R-Texas, about who may have written the letter and if it came from an FAA governmental affairs team, Whitaker, agreed that this was likely.


Two pilots in a plane

Congress will yet again be taking up whether it should raise the retirement age of pilots from 65 to 67. (GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images / Getty Images)

"Presumably, but I don't know precisely who that normally would be," Whitaker said.

Nehls, noting that Whitaker stated the FAA does not have an official position on raising the retirement age, asked the agency head about part of the letter which said the FAA does not "test in a live environment." Whitaker did not dispute the substance of that statement, and explained that it means that "we don't change the rule to see how it plays out."

"We usually like to do the research before we change a rule," he added.

The Senate Commerce Committee may hold an upcoming hearing related to an aviation bill to extend the authorization of the FAA.

"When it comes to raising the pilot retirement age, the FAA has made clear that a scientific and safety analysis must come first. That has not happened," Cantwell told Reuters. "Aviation safety is paramount, and now is not the time to take a shortcut."

Back in July 2023, the House of Representatives passed a bill to reauthorize the FAA that includes a provision raising the commercial airline pilot retirement age to 67. 

The legislation, titled Securing Growth and Robust Leadership in American Aviation Act, passed by a 351-69 vote, according to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. 


Southwest Airlines

A pilot from the Southwest Airlines Pilots' Association stands in the foreground as a Southwest Airlines Co. plane takes off outside Chicago Midway International Airport in Chicago on Wednesday, May 18, 2016.  (Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg opposed the age raise, saying in a Jan. 26 letter to Congress that the FAA "currently has no data to support such increase to the retirement age," and that doing so "will have consequences for U.S. air carriers."

Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA) also opposed the potential move.

"Raising the retirement age beyond 65 would not be in compliance with international standards and therefore disrupt U.S. airline global operations," ALPA said in an online statement. "It would upend pilot bidding, reduce pilot utilization, create training backlogs, imperil flight operation, expose your union and airlines to significant legal liability, and ultimately require hard-fought-for collective bargaining agreements to be reopened to deal with this issue and its ramifications."

ALPA said raising the retirement age would not increase the number of pilots. 

A Southwest Airlines Co. pilot

A Southwest Airlines Co. pilot waits at a gate at Midway International Airport in Chicago on Monday, Oct. 11, 2021. The Air Line Pilots Association, International says raising the retirement age will not increase the number of available pilots. (Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images / Getty Images)

Last summer, the Regional Airline Association group told Reuters that it supports raising the retirement age of pilots because it "allows retention of more experienced captains, who can in turn fly alongside and mentor new first officers, helping to stabilize attrition." 


The Senate bill was previously held up by a dispute over whether to change pilot training requirements imposed after the February 2009 crash of Colgan Air Flight 3407 near Buffalo, New York, that killed 50 people, the last major deadly crash involving an American passenger airline. 

EDITOR'S NOTE: This report was updated to include Whitaker's remarks to lawmakers Tuesday.

Fox Business' Greg Norman and Reuters contributed to this report.