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October 30, 2009: 

The Honorable John D. Rockefeller IV: 
Chairman: 
The Honorable Kay Bailey Hutchison: 
Ranking Member: 
Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation: 
United States Senate: 

The Honorable James L. Oberstar: 
Chairman: 
The Honorable John L. Mica: 
Ranking Member: 
Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure: 

House of Representatives: 

Subject: Aviation Safety: Information on the Safety Effects of 
Modifying the Age Standard for Commercial Pilots: 

The Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act[Footnote 1] (the act) 
extended the federal age standard for pilots of large commercial 
aircraft[Footnote 2] from 60 to 65 years of age.[Footnote 3] The act 
also requires us to report--no later than 24 months after its 
enactment--on the effect, if any, of this change on aviation 
safety.[Footnote 4] This report responds to that requirement. 

To perform our work, we reviewed relevant literature, interviewed 
senior officials from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the 
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and obtained and reviewed 
FAA and NTSB aviation accident and incident data for commercial 
passenger airline flights from December 2007 through September 2009. We 
conducted this performance audit from September 2009 to October 2009 in 
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those 
standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain 
sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our 
findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe that 
the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and 
conclusions based on our audit objectives. Because we are familiar with 
and have previously determined that FAA's and NTSB's data were 
sufficiently reliable for the nationwide descriptive information used 
in this report, we did not further assess the data's reliability; 
however, we did interview agency officials knowledgeable about the 
databases to determine that the accident and incident data used in this 
report continue to be sufficiently reliable for the analysis that we 
performed.[Footnote 5] (See app. I for more detailed information on our 
scope and methodology.) 

Summary: 

Our review of FAA's accident and incident data and NTSB's accident data 
from December 2007, when the act was enacted, through September 2009 
showed that no accidents or incidents[Footnote 6] resulted from the 
health conditions of pilots 60 years or older. However, for a more 
definitive assessment, a longer period of time would be required to 
collect data for similar groups--both pilots 60 years or older and 
younger pilots--to determine if the act's change in the age standard 
for commercial pilots has any effect on aviation safety. Such a study 
is not yet feasible because the act is too recent for flight records to 
be available for a sufficient number of pilots 60 years or older. 

Background: 

In 1960 FAA established 60 as the age limit for pilots of large 
commercial aircraft out of concern for public safety. At that time, FAA 
stated that certain important physiological and psychological functions 
progressively deteriorated with age, that significant medical defects 
attributed to the aging process occurred at an increasing rate as an 
individual grew older, and that sudden incapacity due to such medical 
defects became more frequent in any group reaching age 60.[Footnote 7] 
The benefits of experience in the cockpit may, however, offset the 
potential for health issues related to age. The value of such 
experience was recently demonstrated when a 57-year-old[Footnote 8] 
pilot safely landed his U.S. Airways jetliner in New York's Hudson 
River on January 15, 2009, after the aircraft was crippled by bird 
strikes while taking off from LaGuardia International Airport. 

In November 2006, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the 
United Nations aviation organization that develops standards for 
international aviation activities, increased the age limit for certain 
pilots--i.e., those pilots engaged in operations with more than one 
pilot--to 65 years, provided the other pilot in the cockpit is under 
age 60. 

FAA has established a number of rules regarding pilots of large 
commercial aircraft to help ensure safety. For example, pilots-in- 
command, also referred to as captains, must have medical checkups-- 
including an electrocardiogram--every 6 months and first officers must 
have them annually.[Footnote 9] Depending on the crew configuration of 
the aircraft, FAA regulations restrict the amount of time pilots can 
spend in flight or crew duty status during a 24-hour consecutive period 
as well as the number of hours they are allowed to fly in 12 calendar 
months.[Footnote 10] Generally, pilots are allowed only 8 hours of 
flight deck duty during any 24-hour period. These rules help reduce the 
affects of pilot fatigue on safety. FAA rules also require both the 
captain and the first officer[Footnote 11] to be in their seats during 
critical phases of the flight, including takeoffs and landings. This 
rule helps ensure that even in the event of a sudden death at such a 
juncture, the surviving pilot would be able to keep the plane flying 
safely. 

Early Indications Are that Increasing the Age Limit for Commercial 
Airline Pilots Has No Effect on Aviation Safety: 

FAA's and NTSB's accident and incident data showed no adverse safety 
effects attributable to the increase in the age limit for pilots. At 
our request, both agencies reviewed their respective databases for the 
period from December 2007 through September 2009 and found that no 
accidents or incidents during that period resulted from the health 
conditions of pilots 60 years or older. FAA's Accident and Incident 
Data System (AIDS) captured seven incidents involving captains aged 60 
and 61, but no health or cognitive issues of any kind were reported for 
these incidents. Table 1 summarizes information about these seven 
incidents. The data from FAA's and NTSB's databases during that period 
showed a total of 460 events, consisting of 54 accidents and 406 
incidents, for pilots of large commercial aircraft who were younger 
than 60.[Footnote 12] NTSB's Accident Database included no health- 
related events--accidents--involving pilots 60 years or older that 
occurred during our review period.[Footnote 13] 

Table 1: Aviation Incidents Involving Pilots 60 Years or Older, 
December 2007 through September 2009: 

Date and location of incident: February 12, 2008; 
Cleveland, Ohio; 
Age of pilot: 60; 
Summary of incident: The aircraft was taxiing when it lost brake and 
directional control. To bring the aircraft to a stop, the crew applied 
reverse thrust, which caused the aircraft to rotate approximately 30 
degrees. Assistance was required, and the aircraft was towed to the 
gate. 

Date and location of incident: February 22, 2008,; 
Memphis, Tennessee; 
Age of pilot: 61; 
Summary of incident: At liftoff, the aircraft began to roll without 
being directed to do so by the pilot. The pilot corrected the roll by 
applying opposite control pressure. The pilot then retracted the wing 
flaps and continued the flight. South of Memphis at 10,000 ft, the 
pilot declared an emergency and landed at Memphis without the aid of 
wing flaps. 

Date and location of incident: March 7, 2008; 
Columbus, Ohio; 
Age of pilot: 60; 
Summary of incident: The aircraft landed and slid off the departure end 
of the runway, stopping approximately 267 feet off the end of the 
runway in the snow. The passengers and crew suffered no injuries and 
the aircraft sustained only minor damage. 

Date and location of incident: March 8, 2009; 
Milwaukee, Wisconsin; 
Age of pilot: 60; 
Summary of incident: The aircraft landed in deteriorating weather 
conditions. When cleared to exit the runway to the taxiway, the 
aircraft turned too soon for the intersection and became stuck in the 
snow off the pavement. 

Date and location of incident: April 19, 2009; 
Windsor-Locks, Connecticut; 
Age of pilot: 60; 
Summary of incident: The aircraft landed and was instructed to taxi via 
various runways and taxiways to the terminal. Since the last time the 
crew had landed at this airport, construction had changed the runways' 
configuration. The crew was unaware of this change and taxied off the 
end of the runway causing the aircraft to become stuck in the mud. 

Date and location of incident: January 16, 2009; 
Huslia, Alaska; 
Age of pilot: 61; 
Summary of incident: Upon landing, the pilot reported that he had 
overrotated and bounced the aircraft, landing with an unusually nose-
high attitude. No passengers were injured, but the tail section of the 
aircraft sustained minor damage. 

Date and location of incident: February 18, 2009; 
Savannah, Georgia; 
Age of pilot: 60; 
Summary of incident: The aircraft touched down on the runway, proceeded 
into the overrun area, and stopped 750 feet from the runway. The crew 
indicated that the runway was wet and the aircraft had no braking 
action, which the crew suspected was due to hydroplaning. 

Source: GAO presentation of data from FAA's AIDS database. 

[End of table] 

Although FAA's AIDS database did not include any accident or incident 
involving the health of a pilot aged 60 or older, FAA officials told us 
that on June 18, 2009, a 60-year-old pilot of a Boeing 777 aircraft who 
was serving as captain died en route from Brussels, Belgium, to Newark, 
New Jersey. The first officer landed the aircraft in Newark without 
incident. According to FAA's Deputy Federal Air Surgeon, an autopsy of 
the deceased pilot found evidence of moderate coronary artery disease, 
as well as old and recent heart attacks. However, this official said 
that there was nothing that aeromedical screening could have reasonably 
done to prevent this event, as the airman had an unremarkable physical 
on March 11, 2009. The pilot did have a history of high blood pressure 
and elevated cholesterol, but both conditions were well controlled with 
medication. The Deputy Federal Air Surgeon also said that the 
electrocardiogram at the time of the pilot's last physical was 
unremarkable. 

According to FAA, this June 18, 2009, death of the pilot while airborne 
was the sixth such incident reported since 1994 for a commercial 
passenger airline pilot. According to FAA records, five pilots died 
while in control of a commercial passenger aircraft from 1994 through 
December 2007. During that entire period, the retirement age was 60, 
and the pilots ranged in age from 48 to 57. According to FAA, none of 
these in-flight pilot deaths resulted in an accident. Furthermore, 
these deaths need to be considered in the context of the millions of 
flights that take place every year. In that context, the six deaths 
that have been reported for the almost 155 million departures since 
1994 translate into about 1 chance per 26 million departures that a 
pilot will die in flight. 

Less than 2 years have passed since the act's enactment, and therefore 
the record is limited. FAA's existing medical certification 
requirements and regulations requiring redundancy in staffing aircraft 
have continued to help ensure flight safety even when a pilot has died 
in flight. According to the Executive Director of the Aerospace Medical 
Association,[Footnote 14] to definitively determine whether advancing 
age--in this case, reaching age 60 or older--presents an added risk to 
flight safety because of cognitive or neurophysiological changes or 
sudden incapacitation due to a medical condition, one would need data 
for a large enough cohort of commercial pilots under age 60 and a 
similar cohort of commercial pilots aged 60 or older to compare their 
respective flying records over a period of years. However, sufficient 
data are not yet available for such a comparison because of the recency 
of the act. We note that other factors, such as flight conditions, 
would also have to be considered in such a comparison. Therefore, it is 
premature to conclude that the increase in the age limit for pilots to 
age 65 will or will not have an impact on a pilot's performance and 
aviation safety. As stated in the act, carriers are required to monitor 
the performance of all pilots with a special emphasis on pilots who 
have attained 60 years of age. 

Agency Comments: 

We provided a draft of this report to the Department of Transportation 
and NTSB for review and comment. Both agencies had no comments. 

We are sending copies of this report to the appropriate congressional 
committees, the Secretary of Transportation, the FAA Administrator, and 
the NTSB Chairperson. The report will also be available at no charge on 
the GAO Web site at [hyperlink, http://www.gao.gov]. 

If you or your staffs have any questions about this report, please 
contact me at (202) 512-2834 or by e-mail at dillinghamg@gao.gov. 
Contact points for our Offices of Congressional Relations and Public 
Affairs may be found on the last page of this report. GAO staff that 
made key contributions to this report include Bess Eisenstadt, Brandon 
Haller, David Hooper, Taylor Reeves, and Teresa Spisak. 

Signed by: 

Gerald L. Dillingham, Ph.D. 

Director, Physical Infrastructure Issues: 

[End of section] 

Appendix I: Scope and Methodology: 

To address our mandate to determine the effect on aviation safety, if 
any, of the increase in the age limit for pilots required by the Fair 
Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act (the act), we reviewed relevant 
literature, interviewed senior officials in the Federal Aviation 
Administration's (FAA) Office of Aviation Safety, including its Office 
of Aviation Safety Analytical Services. We also interviewed a senior 
official from the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB) Office 
of Safety Research and Data Analysis. 

To identify accidents and incidents involving pilots aged 60 or older, 
we obtained aviation accident and incident data from FAA's Accident and 
Incident Database (AIDS) and NTSB's Accident Database for large 
commercial aircraft flights from December 2007 through September 2009. 
These data capture the most current information available on flight 
safety since the act's enactment. 

FAA's AIDS database contains incidents that occurred since 1978. FAA 
defines incidents as events that do not meet the thresholds for 
personal injury or aircraft damage contained in NTSB's definition of an 
accident. NTSB defines an "aircraft accident" as an occurrence 
associated with the operation of an aircraft that (1) takes place from 
the time any person boards an aircraft with the intention of flight 
through the time all such persons have disembarked and (2) any person 
suffers death or serious injury, or in which the aircraft receives 
substantial damage. NTSB's Accident Database includes data and causal 
factors for aviation accidents that have occurred since 1982. 

Because we are familiar with and have previously determined that FAA's 
and NTSB's data were sufficiently reliable for the nationwide 
descriptive information used in this report, we interviewed agency 
officials knowledgeable about the databases to determine that the 
accident and incident data used in this report continue to be 
sufficiently reliable for the analysis that we performed. 

We considered the level of evidence available to definitely determine 
whether advancing age--in this case, reaching age 60 or older--presents 
an added risk to flight safety. We concluded that because of the 
recency of the act, sufficient data were available to provide only a 
limited answer. 

[End of section] 

Footnotes: 

[1] Pub L. No. 110-135, December 13, 2007. 

[2] By large commercial aircraft, we mean those aircraft regulated 
under part 121 of title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. Part 121 
applies to air carrier operations involving airplanes with a seating 
capacity of more than 30 passengers or a maximum payload capacity of 
more than 7,500 pounds. The act does not apply to commercial pilots who 
fly planes operating pursuant to C.F.R. part 135, which governs small 
aircraft that have a seating capacity of less than 30 passengers and a 
payload of less than 7,500 pounds. Most commuter, air tour, and air 
taxi operators and medical services (when a patient is on board) fall 
under the purview of part 135. Also, noncommercial pilots, such as 
private and student pilots operating under 14 C.F.R. part 91, are not 
subject to the act. 

[3] 49 U.S.C. §44729(a). The Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act 
also provided that a pilot who has attained age 60 may serve as pilot- 
in-command on an international flight only if another pilot in the 
flight crew is younger than 60. The act prohibits subjecting pilots to 
different, greater, or more frequent medical examinations or different 
medical standards because of their age unless such action is necessary 
to ensure an adequate level of safety. Contradicting this provision is 
the requirement that pilots who have attained 60 years of age may not 
serve as a pilot unless they have a first-class medical certificate. 
Pilots are required to obtain a medical certificate that indicates they 
have passed a physical exam by a FAA-authorized doctor. Depending on a 
pilot's age, a first-class medical certificate is valid for 6 to 12 
months. Additionally, the act requires air carriers to (1) continue to 
provide FAA-approved training to pilots, with a specific emphasis on 
initial and recurring training and the qualification of pilots who have 
attained 60 years of age; and (2) evaluate every 6 months the 
performance of pilots who have attained 60 years of age through an 
actual flight test--referred to as a "line check." 

[4] 49 U.S.C. §44729(h)(3). 

[5] FAA and NTSB provided us with sufficient documentation of their 
database reviews to satisfy our data reliability standards (see app. 
I). 

[6] NTSB defines an accident as an event in which any person suffers 
death or serious injury, or in which the aircraft receives substantial 
damage. NTSB defines an incident as an occurrence, other than an 
accident, associated with the operation of an aircraft that affects or 
could affect the safety of operations. 

[7] See GAO, Aviation Safety: Information on FAA's Age 60 Rule for 
Pilots, GAO/RCED-90-45FS (Washington D.C.: Nov. 9, 1989) for a detailed 
discussion of the history, development, and challenges to the age 60 
rule. 

[8] The pilot turned 58 years old 8 days after the incident. 

[9] 14 C.F.R. §61.23. 

[10] 14 C.F.R. §121.471. 

[11] The captain is the pilot in the left seat of the cockpit who flies 
the airplane, makes all the command decisions, and is responsible for 
the flight's safety. Sitting in the right seat and acting as a copilot 
is the first officer, who has an independent set of controls and 
instruments to operate the aircraft and may fly the plane about half 
the time, usually swapping duties with the captain after each segment 
of the flight. 

[12] Due to the recency of the act, pilots who are 60 and older are a 
very small proportion of the total population. According to the FAA 
data, there have been generally been more than 100,000 active air 
transport pilots during each of the last several years. 

[13] See appendix I for descriptions of FAA's and NTSB's databases. 

[14] The Aerospace Medical Association represents approximately 3,300 
physicians, scientists, and flight nurses engaged in the practice of 
aerospace medicine or related research. 

[End of section] 

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