Inquiry: Pilot in Safety Incident Over International Retirement Age

Is 65 too old for a pilot? Do that many years affect his ability to fly? This question is a focus of inquiry following the serious aviation safety incident at Ben-Gurion International Airport last month, in which an El Al flight entered the wrong runway and prepared for takeoff, while an Uzbekistan Air plane was coming in for a landing on the same runway.

The preliminary investigation into the incident indicated an error by the El Al pilot is what caused the near-accident. Most international standards ban pilots from flying after age 65, but not in Israel. The pilot involved is over 65 and serves as a first officer on Boeing 747-400s, the plane involved in the incident. The pilot used to fly 737s but recently was transferred to 747s. The issue of the pilot's inexperience with this plane is also being investigated.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration bans pilots from flying commercially after 65. As for copilots, the equivalent of El Al's first officer, the FAA recommends not flying after 65. On Israeli airlines, first officers function as pilots in every way, including making takeoffs and landings.

It is highly unusual to find pilots over 65 on foreign airlines, and most countries make pilots' retirement mandatory at age 65. However, some countries such as Canada allow pilots to fly after 65.

El Al employs between 10 and 20 such pilots and those who fly international routes must meet strict medical and training standards and undergo three medical exams a year, instead of the two required of younger colleagues, and three simulator training sessions a year instead of two.

Until this year, Israeli pilots were forced to retire at 65, but when the legal retirement age was officially raised to 67 the question of the two years from 65 to 67 arose. At first the solution was to ground the pilots and find them other airline work, but this cut their income. The regulations were later changed by the Israel Civil Aviation Authority, with pilots granted special permission to fly until age 67. However, they were not allowed to serve as pilots, but only as first officers.

The investigation of the B-G incident shows the El Al pilot was in radio contact with the control tower, while the first officer, the one over 65, taxied the plane. There was also another pilot present in the cockpit. The first officer then entered the runway and positioned the plane for takeoff, even though he was not given permission to do so by the controllers. An alert air traffic controller noticed what was happening and sent the Uzbekistan Air plane around for another landing pass and thereby prevented a tragedy.

"It was a mistake to let older pilots on the verge of retirement to retrain and allow them to continue to fly on other planes that are new to them," said an aviation expert familiar with the incident. This should make us reconsider the fitness of these pilots to retrain on other planes and continue to fly, said the expert.

El Al's vice president of operations, Lior Yavor, who is also a pilot, rejected the idea: "There is no connection in this incident between the age of the pilot and the mistake. There were three pilots in the cockpit who all shared in the incident. We need to wait until the completion of the inquiry," Yavor said.

Yavor said older pilots are more experienced, and they are not the captain in charge but only first officers. In addition, he noted, they must meet all professional and medical requirements.