Mandatory Retirement at 30,000 Feet

As members of the luckiest generation, we baby boomers have little to complain about. It has been up to us to make our mark in the world and as a generation we’ve done a pretty good job of it. But there’s something standing in the way of some of us, something Marcia Barhydt writes about in an essay she calls, Mandatory Retirement at 30,000 Feet.

In Canada, where I live, the major airline is Air Canada, founded in 1936. It continues to be a force in the global industry, ranking today as the world’s ninth largest passenger airline. In 2006, 34-million people flew with Air Canada as it celebrated its 70th anniversary.

Marcia Barhydt

It must be doing something right. But not everything, because Air Canada is one of just a few airlines left in the world where pilots must retire at the age of 60. Is this good airline safety, or is it ageism? Would you be upset, knowing that your captain is 60-years-old? How about 70, or even 80??

Is there a bad fairy godmother with a wand of curses who makes a pilot incompetent on his or her 60th birthday with a cheery little “bipity, bopity, boo?” Are you any different here on the ground at your 60th birthday than you were when you were just 59? Of course, the answer to both of those questions is a resounding NO.

In the case of Air Canada and also a few carriers in the U.S., it’s a question, as always, of dollars; the more seniority a pilot has, the more money the pilot earns. Clearly, the airline has a greater profit if its payroll is reduced.

In Canada, this issue has gone to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, on its way to the Supreme Court. There is also a bill in Parliament that would repeal the section of the Canadian Human Rights Act that allows federally-regulated businesses to determine which employees have reached “the normal age of retirement” in their sector. This section will affect more than 800,000 employees in our Canadian Armed Forces, “Crown” corporations, and other federally-regulated sectors, including marine shipping.

In North America, as well as elsewhere, mandatory retirement is largely a thing of the past, a practice recognized as ageist. It’s no different from other businesses where older workers and younger workers have to learn a tolerance for each other.

Older workers bring wisdom and experience to the table; younger workers bring energy and fresh ideas. The general feeling of younger workers— that older workers staying in their job is decreasing the newbie’s opportunity— may be correct. But it’s a concept that newbies are learning to accept. It’s a rocky road from both ends and it will require tact, consideration, and flexibility from both ends of the age spectrum before it becomes accepted.

In an article from the Toronto Star in March, one Air Canada captain complaining about forced retirement says, “This has nothing to do with greed. We have a good pension. I could stay home and live quite comfortably. But I’m much too young to just play golf all day.”

He adds, “I was flying a perfect approach. I made a perfect landing. I’m the best I’ve ever been. I don’t look 60 and I certainly don’t feel it. I’m not going to just stay home and get old and do nothing.”

Let me ask you again, “Would you be unhappy — or happy — knowing that your Captain is 60 years old?”

Welcome aboard.

Follow Marcia online … click here.



  1. I am a baby boomer, and when I was 21, I thought 60 was so old. Now that I am 58, 60 doesn’t seem so old anymore. Personally I would not have any problem with a 60 year old pilot. However there has to be some kind of standar.d to retire older pilots. It is not just about the pilot be satified and happy with what he is doing, the fact is he has hundreds of passengers to consider as well.

    Whether we want to accept it or not all of our motor skills and senses are affected by age. There has to be a stopping point. I don’t much like the concept of forced retirement, but there has to be a point where the elderly should retire with dignity.


  2. I agree that it is not fair to discriminate against someone based on their age. This is especially true from a professional stand point with these pilots. If someone can perform a task at age sixty they should be allowed to do so. I dont think that ‘forced’ retirement is a great idea.

  3. I’m delighted with all of your comments! Thanks for taking the time!

    I was a flight attendant with Air Canada for 32 years. At no time did I personally have any thoughts about my safety, no matter what the age of the pilot. And I’m convinced that experience counts big time for pilots. Like fine wine…

    Shelly, I think Sully was older – maybe not in his 60s, but old enough to make an immediate decision that saved lives.

    Mike, I had Steven Tyler on a flight once and he, just like the Stones, looked incredibly old. The lines in his face could have held little boats. And there he was, still working, with no one questioning his age.

    And Janik, yes, age is completely a perception. And ageism, discrimination of older people, is rampant simply because of those perceptions.

    We need to stop these perceptions in their tracks and we need to believe and encourage anyone to do anything at anytime.


  4. Here’s what I know. I’m the same age as that ever youthful looking politician John Edwards (58 … but I’m not a creep like him). We both have that baby face, good hair and appear much younger than we are. People generally take me for late 30s and treat me as such. BUT, as soon as they discover my true age, I notice they treat me quite differently. My point? Age is more perception than reality.

  5. My Dad worked as a police officer until age 75. At age 73, one night he ran after escaping thieves who were in their 20s, tackled one of them, wrestled him to the ground and handcuffed him before back-up arrived.

    Good thing age is not the criteria for mandatory retirement in rock-n-roll: The Rolling Stones oldest member is 70 and its youngest band member is 63; Bruce Springstein turns 62 this year; Rod Stewart will turn 67 on his next birthday; Joni Michell will be 69; Tom Petty is 61; and former Beatle Paul McCartney will turn 69 this month (June 2011). Anyone care to make the argument that these great artists are all over the hill?

    Seems like age should not be a disqualifier for any career, since age seems to affect different people differently. When I ran my first 26 mile marathon, at age 32, a man in his 70s passed me at mile 18 like I was standing still. Yet I know some people today who are only late 40s/early 50s who seem old.

  6. This article reminded me of how I am often guilty of reverse discrimination. When I board a plane and the pilot looks like a high school student…I wonder if he/she has lived enough life to garner the wit and wisdom to deal with crisis. Admittedly, the same question arises when my doctor turns out to be several years short of a 30th birthday.

    Appearances aside, I believe every individual should have the opportunity to compete for a job with skills and ability being the only criteria. Chronology alone is an unreliable and often deceptive judge.

  7. So my question is, how old was Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger….the pilot who belly landed a large jet on the Hudson River and no one died….? Skills borne of experience ought to count for something…especially when so many lives depend upon it. He also had a younger co-pilot on board and together they saved many lives that day. Seems like a winning combination.

  8. I don’t feel 60 is old for most people today and forcing retirement that early results in the loss of good people with valuable experience. I’d be totally happy with a younger pilot as I am over 60 and would hate to be told I had to stop doing what I love.

  9. And thank you for your very valid points.

    In the airline industry, all pilots over 55 or 60 need to have a medical exam every six months. So the airline does keep very close tabs on their abilities.

    What I learned from researching this piece is that pilots over a certain age, maybe 60, are always paired with a First Officer who is younger. So there are never 2 older pilots flying you to your destination. And if the older one has a sudden heart attack, the younger one just steps in.

    I think that makes the mandatory retirement argument almost moot. There is no danger to passengers. So then what’s this all about?

    There’s a union involved here also. And there’s each pilot’s knowledge of how ‘young’ he is when he’s 65 or 70.

    I hope this quells some nervousness.


  10. I’d be perfectly happy if my pilot was 60. But I don’t know about 70 …

    It’s a sad fact, but people do deteriorate with age (a tennis player is washed up at age 30!). Where to draw the line is a touchy subject; but probably a line has to be drawn somewhere.

    Meantime, if we say that we’re not going to fire people just b/c they get older, why do we assume that they should get paid more just b/c they get older? That might be part of the problem … older workers become overpaid b/c of seniority, then they are targeted for layoffs when a company needs to save money.

    How do I know? It happened to me. I kept getting my 4 or 5 percent raises every year, sometimes more. It was great while it lasted. But then at age 53 I was making two or three times as much as younger people doing essentially the same job. So I got fired. Now I freelance for about 1/5th my former salary. In retrospect, I would have rather received lower raises, and kept my job for another 5 or 10 years. I would have made more money in the long run.

    Anyway, interesting subject. Thanks for bringing it up.

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