Sixty? Time to come down to earth

Originally published in the Toronto Star on March 11th, 2011. To go to the Toronto Star website please click here

Sometime in late April, Michael Ennis will climb into the captain’s seat of an Air Canada Boeing 777 for the last time.

He’ll run through the check list, taxi to the runway, then smile at that magical moment when the giant bird takes flight and the ground gives way to clouds.

After 28,000 hours of flying everything from DC8s to state-of-the-art 777s, Ennis, 59, is adamant he’s at the top of his game.

But he’s being forced to close the cockpit door on a 39-year career with Air Canada because it’s one of just a few airlines left in the world where pilots must retire at the age of 60.

Ennis is so keen to keep flying, he’ll be leaving his wife in Oakville (they have two grown children) on May 1 and start “commuting” to Istanbul, where he’ll fly 777s for Turkish Airlines.

“I don’t want to leave Air Canada,” he says. “Being a pilot is what I am. Putting on the uniform, going to the airport and flying a big jet — that is what I do.

“This will be a lot of stress on myself and my family, but I don’t want to stop flying.”

Air Canada unwittingly finds itself at the centre of a nasty storm which some believe is about passenger safety and others say is really about ageism.

It has pitted junior pilots against senior and the pilots’ union against some of its oldest members in a bitter battle that is playing out in online forums and airplane cockpits and at the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal.

If the complex case makes it all the way to the Supreme Court, as expected, it could strike down the last vestiges of mandatory retirement left in Canada.

That’s if a private member’s bill doesn’t do that first.

Bill C-481, which received third reading at committee on Tuesday, would repeal a section of the Canadian Human Rights Act which allows federally regulated businesses to terminate employees who’ve reached “the normal age of retirement” in their sector.

The section affects more than 800,000 employees in the Canadian Forces, Crown corporations and federally regulated sectors such as transportation, broadcasting, banking and marine shipping.

The bill will die if an election is called. But the committee hearings have shone a light on thousands of older workers — among them Air Canada pilots — who can still be forced out in their 60s, despite the fact mandatory retirement was outlawed in most other workplaces years ago.

“The federal government is the last jurisdiction in Canada to hold on to legislated age discrimination,” says Susan Eng, vice-president of advocacy for the Canadian Association of Retired People (CARP), which is pushing for passage of the bill.

“This is an abuse of peoples’ personal rights.”

A Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has agreed. Last November it ordered Air Canada to reinstate two pilots, George Vilven, now 67, and Neil Kelly, now 65, who argued they were unfairly forced out because of provisions in their union’s collective agreement.