Northwest and its ALPA branch sought to keep it at age 60, but the congressman's bill has backing from the national union.
The retirement age for airline pilots would be increased from 60 to 65 under a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., that was approved Tuesday night by the House of Representatives.
"Each day that passes without raising the retirement age to 65 means approximately five of our senior, most experienced pilots will be forced to retire," Oberstar said in a written floor statement.
Oberstar, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is shepherding this legislation with the backing of national leaders of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA).
But the management of Eagan-based Northwest Airlines and the chairman of ALPA's Northwest branch told Oberstar in a May letter that they "strongly oppose" changing the current age standard.
"The age 60 rule has been in place for nearly 50 years, and has served safety and the public interest well," Northwest CEO Doug Steenland and Northwest ALPA Chairman Dave Stevens said in a May 7 letter to Oberstar.
Oberstar said in his Tuesday statement that airlines are expected to transport more than 1 billion passengers a year by 2015, while pilot retirements from 2003 to 2008 are projected to be up 173 percent compared with a six-year period in the mid-1990s.
Oberstar argued that pilots should have the opportunity to keep working.
To ensure safe airline operations as the mandatory retirement age rises, Oberstar said his bill contains multiple requirements for pilots who have reached age 60. They'd have to get a first-class medical certificate renewed every six months and do a flight check every six months.
They would also have to continue taking part in Federal Aviation Administration pilot training and qualification programs.
In a May survey, Northwest pilots were opposed to changing the age 60 rule by a 3-1 ratio.
In the Northwest management-ALPA letter sent to Oberstar in May, Steenland and Stevens wrote: "We must maintain the highest standards of safety that the world has come to expect from us." In their three-page letter, they added that a higher retirement age would create a host of scheduling problems, and it would delay the advancements of younger pilots to higher-paying jobs.
But Northwest and its pilots struck a different tone in brief comments they made Tuesday.
"Although most Northwest pilots have concerns about a change to the age 60 rule, we are supportive of Rep. Oberstar and his efforts to ensure any changes to the current rules include safety protections supported by ALPA," said Monty Montgomery, vice chairman of the pilots union.
Northwest spokesman Roman Blahoski said: "We are neutral on the change and believe it will have minimal impact to Northwest long-term. It will be an individual decision by each individual pilot whether to work past age 60."
The age 60 issue has been controversial within ALPA, International. In late May, the union abandoned its long-standing opposition to raising the retirement age.
John Prater, ALPA's president, said in late October that he directed his staff to work with Oberstar to incorporate measures that are important to ALPA in how a higher age standard would be implemented.
Prater's actions were a departure from his predecessor -- Northwest pilot Duane Woerth. In 2005, Woerth testified before a U.S. Senate committee in favor of keeping the age 60 limit, partly because he said that "medical science has not developed a regimen of reliable tests" to determine which aging pilots should retire from flying.
Liz Fedor • 612-673-7709