Southwest Crosses Into the Gray

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For more than four decades the Federal Aviation Administration has forced airline pilots to retire at age 60. The so-called "Age 60 rule" was adopted with virtually no medical data to support it then, and, critics say, it remains in place today despite studies that show that older fliers can still be capable pilots. The experience of major carriers outside the U.S. confirms that qualified pilots over age 59 continue to fly safely, and the FAA has not identified a single airliner accident in the U.S. attributable to the age of a pilot. But airlines have continued to support the rule, in part, critics charge, in order to get their most highly-paid employees off their books early. The FAA stands by arguments made during the 1959 rulemaking process that people lose critical cognitive and motor skills as they age. The powerful Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) has also argued to keep the rule in order, some say, to keep its younger members happy. The FAA and Congress have been unwilling to question the status quo.

But the Age 60 rule may soon become a relic of the past. Last week a group of twelve pilots asked the Supreme Court to review their challenge of the Age 60 regulation in which they ask for waivers to the rule. On Capitol Hill, influential Congressman John Mica, a Florida Republican who heads the House aviation subcommittee, says he will hold hearings on the topic. Even the ALPA is considering reviewing its stance.

Now the big guns are coming out. Next week, TIME has learned, Southwest Airlines will file a friend of the court brief in support of the pilots' challenge. For Southwest, one of the nation's biggest airlines and one which, remarkably, has never had a fatal accident in its thirty years of flying, to be the first major airline to take such a decisive step puts real momentum behind the move to throw out the Age 60 rule. "Times are changing," says Southwest spokesman Linda Rutherford. "We are losing some really good pilots."

Supporters of changing the rule point out that airline pilots are some of the most closely monitored people in the world: they receive two physical examinations, two to three 'check' rides where their pilots skills must meet FAA standards and at least one recurring training session ground school per year. On top of that, pilots are required to watch each other and report if there are problems that could affect safety in any way. "If rigid enforcement of the age 60 rule ever served any valid purpose—a doubtful proposition at best—it certainly outlived its usefulness long ago," says Tony Bothwell, the attorney representing the pilots' challenge.

With Southwest on board, passengers may start to see some of that gray hair sitting up front—and not just in First Class.