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Breaking an Age Barrier

IN most occupations, forcing employees to retire when they turn 60 is regarded as age discrimination. But ever since 1959 the Federal Aviation Administration has required commercial airline pilots to step down at 60, on the grounds that older pilots might pose a safety hazard in the air.

Now two Chicago-area pilots and the 1,000-member Professional Pilots Federation are challenging the FAA's ``Age 60 Rule.'' In a suit filed this week, they argue that such restrictions violate pilots' civil rights. A vice president of the pilots' federation, a group formed three years ago to challenge the FAA rule, also claims that in recent years younger pilots have had more airline accidents than those who are more experienced.

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Indeed, when an engine exploded on a United Airlines DC-10 on a Denver-to-Chicago flight in 1989 and the hydraulic line was severed, it was a 57-year-old pilot, Capt. Al Haynes, who maneuvered the crippled jet to an airport in Iowa, where it crash-landed. Although there were 112 deaths, 184 people survived. Captain Haynes was hailed as a hero for his expert handling of an emergency situation for which airplane manufacturers had published no guidelines.

The FAA has said it is studying the issue raised by the lawsuit. The 42,000-member Airline Pilots Association supports the age restriction on grounds that doctors cannot determine which over-60 pilots would perform well.

The safety of the flying public is paramount. Yet in the 35 years since the FAA set 60 as the age for mandatory retirement, many stereotypes about aging have been proven wrong.

The professional performance of commercial airline pilots in the United States is already subject to regulation: For instance, every six months they must undergo a physical exam.

Because of their responsibility for the lives of others, pilots must be held to the highest standards, and those standards should be regularly reviewed. But tests should relate to performance, not to a date on a resume. Age is a description of the calendar, not of competence. If the FAA ever does agree to raise the age limit, even by a year or two, or to grant case-by-case exemptions, captains would not be required to have their wings clipped when all their numbers come up A-OK except their birthdays.

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