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With Benefits Dwindling, Pilots Fight Retirement


Time now for business news. Most Americans won't receive full retirement benefits from Social Security until they are at least 65 years old, but some people must quit their jobs well before that. Under federal law, commercial airline pilots have to hang up their wings at 60. In the past, that wasn't such a big deal--most pilots had generous pensions--but with several of the major airlines in bankruptcy, pilot pensions aren't what they used to be. NPR's Jack Speer reports.

JACK SPEER reporting:

After a more than 30-year career as a commercial airline pilot, Michael Shankman still has no trouble remembering his last day in the cockpit.

Mr. MICHAEL SHANKMAN (Retired Pilot): It was October 21st, 2003, the day before my 60th birthday.

SPEER: Shankman, a retired US Airways pilot, smiles as he talks about his days flying for the airlines. Shankman recently sold his house in New York and moved to the Washington, DC, area with his wife, who was a director at a private school. Shankman spends time getting his new house in shape and playing with is grandkids who live nearby. He still has fond memories of that final flight.

Mr. SHANKMAN: I flew the shuttle that day because I always enjoyed flying the shuttle. I flew a round-trip from New York to Washington and back to New York. I had my family on board. I had a number of friends on board. It made for a very nice day.

SPEER: But for Shankman and thousands of other commercial pilots, the dream of gliding off into retirement with a fat pension is gone. In the case of US Airways and United, the government agency that guarantees pension plans is taking over the airlines' retirement plans. There are those who say Delta and Northwest may go the same route. The government-run pension fund pays out a maximum of $45,000 a year, but that's for people who retire at age 65. For those who retire at age 60, including airline pilots, the payout is only around $28,000 a year. Shankman has seen his pension cut by two-thirds. Pilots acknowledge compared to many people, their pensions are relatively large, but Paul Turner, a US Airways captain, now just a few years away from retirement, was expecting much more.

Captain PAUL TURNER (US Airways): It's not fair. It's just not right. You're getting people at the end of their careers who have worked their entire lives so they can live relatively comfortably after they retire, and now it's being taken away from them.

SPEER: Some older pilots said they might be able to make up some of their lost pension income by flying longer, and they've banded together, lobbying Congress to try to raise the mandatory retirement age, but the idea is controversial. Even the two largest pilots unions favor keeping the retirement age where it is. Denny Breslin is a captain with American Airlines and a spokesman for the union that represents American Airlines pilots.

Captain DENNY BRESLIN (American Airlines): It was somewhat arbitrary, but they had to pick a point to start, so they did. They picked 60, and since then, it's proven to stand up to all scrutiny. Now they want to change it, based on economic reasons, and the Allied Pilots Association feels that it shouldn't be changed without convincing evidence that it's safe to change it.

SPEER: That is also the position of the Federal Aviation Administration. In a written statement, the FAA said it believes what's currently in place is, quote, "the right standard for pilots." The agency cites the fact with age, eyesight generally worsens and reaction times slow. But Michael Boyd, an aviation industry consultant and head of The Boyd Group, says there are other reasons the FAA wants to maintain the status quo.

Mr. MICHAEL BOYD (The Boyd Group): The FAA will look at it and say, `Wait a minute, we're putting ourselves at risk, because somebody can come up and say, "Why, you want older people to fly, you know, across the Atlantic, across--over cities?"'

SPEER: And the Air Line Pilots Association, the largest pilots union with 64,000 members, has also decided not to push for any change in the rule. Boyd says that's because for younger pilots, their career advancement depends on older pilots stepping down.

Mr. BOYD: Pilots unions, you know, they want to move people through. An earlier retirement means more people move through, totally aside from the medical issues.

SPEER: But in defending raising the retirement age above 60, older airline pilots say medical advances and the fact people now live longer means it would not affect safety. Bills are now pending in both the House and Senate to raise the mandatory retirement age for airline pilots, though it's not clear whether there is currently enough support for that legislation. There are also measures to reform the pension laws to give airlines with large pension liabilities more time to shore up their ailing plans. Jack Speer, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jack Speer
Jack Speer is a newscaster at NPR in Washington, DC. In this role he reports, writes, edits, and produces live hourly updates which air during NPR programming.