Sixty? Time to come down to earth

More than 150 other pilots have launched similar complaints, and about a dozen Air Canada flight attendants, sales agents, baggage handlers and mechanics who were forced to quit at 65 are also fighting to get their jobs back.

Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick declined to go into detail on the legal challenges, saying: “We are in full compliance with the law with respect to mandatory retirement, but as these issues are still before the tribunal and courts we are not able to comment further at this time.”

Air Canada and the Air Canada Pilots Association want to maintain the status quo, warning that the notion of what some call “fly till you die” could cripple the airline and doom younger pilots to the bottom rungs of the career ladder.

Some have even suggested that having senior citizen pilots could be risky for passengers. Yet pilots over the age of 40 face two medicals a year and regular competency testing in a flight simulator.

As well, pilots over age 60 are required, under the International Civil Aviation Authority’s (ICAO) so-called “over 60/under 60 rule” to have a younger co-pilot in the cockpit of any flights over international airspace.

That includes Air Canada flights between, say, Toronto and Halifax, which veer over U.S. airspace because it’s the shortest, most cost-effective route. In fact, 80 per cent of Air Canada’s flights go over international airspace.

The airline’s biggest concern is that a glut of over-60 pilots could wreck havoc with scheduling and force more reliance on Canada-only airspace, adding millions in fuel, staffing and other costs.

But older pilots point out that many U.S. airlines extended the retirement age to 65 years ago and have managed to deal with the scheduling issue. And Jazz, which operates regional flights for Air Canada, allows pilots to fly to 65.

Capt. Paul Strachan, 43, president of the Air Canada Pilots Association, counters that pilots know when they join Air Canada that theirollective agreement stipulates a retirement age of 60.

“This is an issue that’s very easy to see as black and white, yet it’s anything but,” he says. “The issue here is the equality of opportunity for everyone to advance in their career.”

The animosity between the pilots isn’t all that different from the “toxicity” and ageism CARP hears about from some its members, thanks to the recession, the end of mandatory retirement and discriminatory union contracts, says Eng.

Complicating the Air Canada situation is an archaic pay and seniority system based on years of service, the size of airplane pilots fly and what seat they occupy in the cockpit.

The most junior first-officer (co-pilot) on Air Canada’s Embraer regional jets makes just $39,000 a year. The most senior Boeing 777 pilot, such as Ennis, makes $239,000.

Problem is, there are just 162 of those top captain jobs but more than 3,000 Air Canada pilots.

Not every pilot wants to be a 777 captain, but most do want to move up the ladder to bigger airplanes and more senior postings that bring greater prestige and pay, better time off, and more choice over the routes they fly.