Saturday, March 10, 2007

Somebody Else's Big Day

I had an interesting experience tonight, something new for me in my 13 years of airline flying. Tonight I flew with a captain who was doing his last flight as a pilot.

By regulation, American airline pilots must relinquish the controls when they reach their 60th birthday. This regulation has been in force for decades, and all countries mandate a maximum age for a person to act as a pilot in airline service. For years in England it was 55, and America has had the so-called "age 60 rule" since 1959. The rule is meant to be safety-related, with the government trying to head off health- and reaction-related safety issues rather before they can arise. It's a subject which has been pretty extensively studied, and, at least a few decades ago, it was found that pilot errors tended to increase somewhat as pilots exceed a certain age. But more recently, with health care improving and life expectancies rising, it has become harder and harder to justify the limit strictly on health (and ergo, safety) grounds. Japan and Europe, among others, have moved to a 65 year limit--apparently without any notable adverse effects on safety--and now it appears that America will follow suit. FAA Administrator Marion Blakey announced recently that the organization will now, after decades of staunch resistance, support revising the rule to age 65, and congress is expected to approve the measure (though with some debate). This measure, if it passes, will change all of our career paths somewhat, affecting when we will upgrade to a captain position, and how long we will be in that position before we ourselves must retire. Earnings, retirement accrual, and the amount we may need to retire comfortably will all be impacted by the ruling.

But the ruling is not in effect yet, and even if it passes it will likely be 18-24 months from passage before it goes into effect. For now, when the calendar ticks off one's 60th birthday, one is done in an airline cockpit. Well, that's not quite true, as the cargo companies still have some older airplanes (like mine) which require a flight engineer in addition to the two pilots. And there is no age limit for engineers. So, at least at my company, a pilot reaching age 60 is not forced to retire altogether, though he can no longer act as a flying pilot. Such is the case with my captain tonight. He is headed next week to training for the engineer's seat (with its 50% pay cut), at least for a couple years. But tonight we flew from Milwaukee down to Louisville, and he handled the controls of a large jet for the last time.

There's just something inherently moving in this, as there is anytime one performs an act knowingly for the last time, but especially when it's a hard-won and complex skill set and something by which one has earned one's living for decades. Maybe more than with many careers, I think we pilots have a lot of our sense of identity wrapped up in our jobs. This guy and I have been paired together for our last three weeks of flying, and so we've been talking about this the whole time and he's been preparing for it. But there was a sense of finality as he gave his safety briefings and ran his checklists, exercising skills made second-nature over the years with an understanding that these skills were being used for the last time in his life. As we taxied in on arrival in Louisville, the company had a little bus out on the ramp to meet us, with the captain's family and friends on board to watch the termination of his last trip and to come up to the cockpit and get a glimpse of how he has earned his living for the last two decades. Then everybody went inside the Air Services Center for a quick celebratory cake, and he drove home no longer an airline captain. Kind of like a wedding, it was a big deal, a real milestone in someone's life.

While it's easy for us to become complacent with things we do daily, I'm often reminded that this really is an amazing way to make a living. As a confirmed romantic, I can't avoid being attached to the job and to its many really extraordinary aspects (as my many googly-eyed posts attest); I think we're hugely fortunate to do what we do rather than a zillion other things I might think of. I guess I have no business making blanket judgments about these things; I can only confirm that this is really the right job for me.

As it clearly has been for him. Here's hoping that fabulous doors open for him to counter these big ones that close.


Dzesika said...

Brilliant post. (I'm also reminded of the REM song to that effect and now have the lyrics in my head, but that's beside the point. :)

I've never had a job that wasn't tied up in my identity somehow, and can't even imagine what that must be like. Then again, I've struggled for the past five years to not have my job as My Entire Life. So it cuts both ways ... still, I'd rather have it the former, as evidenced by the idea that being your captain friend, no longer allowed to do what he's done for the past umpteen years, just sends chills down my spine.

wunelle said...

I think retirement must always be scary, a kind of one-way portal walked thru, a marker in life: "downhill from this point." (It doesn't need to mean this, of course, but that's the message one must fight--the sense that we've become too old to be useful.) Even tougher to fight when it's other people telling you that you have to go.

Esbee said...

If they pass the age 65 thing next year, wouldn't he, as a 61 year old, be eligible to return for another four years?

wunelle said...

This situation is unsettled somewhat. At most airlines, age 60 means off the property, and a point was made to prevent these people from coming back. This was just deemed (by whomever) the best solution to a sticky problem.

But at my company, there is no decision yet as to whether people forced to the engineer's seat will be able to come back up front. My sense is that once gone, they'll stay gone (from a pilot's seat). But I may be proven wrong.

Hi Ms. Esbee! :-D