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Graying US Pilots Question Mandatory Retirement

Americans are so much healthier these days. We must be, because we're living a lot longer. You even hear 60 being called "the old 50." In other words, if you're 60 years old today, there's a good chance you're as spry -- and have as long to live -- as 50-year-olds a couple of generations ago.

That is, unless you're an airplane pilot. You see, the government forces U.S. airline pilots to retire at 60, no matter how physically vigorous and mentally sharp they may be. Rules are rules, and out they go, even though these men and women have grown so skilled that they're probably flying the companies' biggest and most complicated aircraft.

But they're usually not unemployed for long. These veteran pilots are often snapped up by foreign carriers. Sure, they and their spouses have to move to Belize or Bahrain for awhile. But as expatriate pilots, they keep doing what they love, and the good paychecks keep rolling in.

Here's something interesting: Beginning November 1, the United States will allow foreign-flag pilots up to age 65 to fly into U.S. airports. But if they work for a U.S. airline like United or Delta or Northwest, they're still out at 60.

Naturally, older pilots who are physically fit and sharp as a tack are objecting to this mandatory-retirement rule. They think it's stupid to jettison pilots at the peak of their abilities. And they point out that keeping them on saves millions of dollars in training costs for their replacements. Besides, they say -- and lots of people agree -- in today's tense times, a calm, experienced hand at the controls is a huge security asset.

Younger pilots, of course, are perfectly happy with the retire-at-60 rule, for obvious career reasons. Just wait till they're 60, when 60 is the new 45!