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Pilots Age 65+

Flying Past Age 65: Better Opportunities Than You Might Imagine

By Peter Forman
June 4, 2019

The U.S. airline industry is in the midst of a growing wave of retirements that will see thousands of commercial pilots turn 65 and be forced out of the cockpit over the coming decade. And while this new dynamic was creating challenges for many airlines, some are seeing this wave of retirements as an opportunity.

Federal Aviation Administration rules dictate that a pilot’s career at a Part 121 airline is over the day they turn 65. But that doesn’t mean these pilots lose their skills overnight or that they still can’t be safe, effective aviators in the right situation.

This growing class of over-65 pilots is a promising source of staffing for Part 135 operators -- which do not have the same age restrictions -- as they weather the near-term effects of a shifting hiring landscape. Well known jet charter companies willing to hire over age 65 pilots include Gama Aviation and Delta Private Jets, both Wheels Up companies.

For pilots, it can be a bit of a shift from a comfortable routine with a small army of employees assisting most aspects of the flight. Still, life at a charter offers the kind of flexibility and upside that can appeal to pilots looking to continue working past 65. The threat of the recent pilot shortage has led companies to increase compensation and other benefits in order to attract suitable pilot candidates.

What to expect

Consider how well a former airline pilot might fit into a jet charter business. Pilots interact with their passengers much more often in a jet charter operation as compared to regional and major airlines. Typical jet charter customers are successful business people, who are acutely aware of their environments. Safety of flight is crucial, and they like to see grey hair and lots of experience up in the cockpit.

When it comes to quality of life at a jet charter, forget the old image of corporate pilots constantly on call. Regular days off are now the norm, with an 8-days-on, 6-off schedule common across the industry. Benefits typically include excellent medical coverage for pilot and spouse, vacation time, and many other perks.

A typical schedule could see an aircraft crew change every Wednesday. On Tuesday, you learn of the flight from your local airport the next morning, where positive space tickets await to bring you to the location of your aircraft. When you and your other crewmember arrive, the previous crew is flown back home via positive space airline travel, and the jet is yours for one week. You may fly three legs that first day or you might go straight to the hotel, depending upon the schedule.

When it’s time to fly, you are typically in charge of flight and fuel planning. As passengers show up, you greet them and stow their luggage.

It’s much more of a hands-on, personal approach to a flying job and it will appeal to some but not all pilots. The number of airports in the U.S. a private jet can visit is considerably greater than those served by major airlines and the work week takes on a more adventurous character. When Wednesday arrives and the new crew shows up, you jump on an airliner with positive space ticketing and fly home.

Jet charter companies typically publish a list of acceptable airports in the contiguous United States from which you can begin and end your assignments. Most require you to live within an hour and a half to two hours of that airport. When you arrive home, you have the better part of a week to enjoy before returning to your next assignment.

Things to know

Of course age 65 status includes some limitations. Charter companies typically do not assign pilots above age 65 to the largest, longest-range jets that are prime candidates for flights to Europe. ICAO regulations, which European countries follow, preclude the use of pilots over age 65 for charter operations into their countries.

Instead, you might be assigned to a mid-sized jet that flies domestically and, sometimes, into Canada where a more senior pilot is still allowed to visit.

Additional restrictions for pilots on the high side of 65 years include no Part 121 passenger or cargo flying. Fortunately, jet charter companies operate under Part 135 where age is not a limitation.

Robert Kreppein, Vice President of Gama Aviation, said “it’s best for retiring airline pilots to contact Gama before retirement. That way a smooth transition into the new job can be made while the pilot is still current. Those who apply a few years after retirement have a more difficult time transitioning to the new style of flying.”

The hiring landscape

Each employer offers a slightly different approach to the job.

“It’s a different culture than airline flying,” says Chip Argumaniz, pilot supervisor at Gama.

In order to facilitate the transition, newly hired pilots are first assigned to the right seat of the Beechcraft King Air 350. Gama sometimes offers a position known as “provisional captain” to former airline pilots who do well in training, giving these pilots certain benefits of the captain’s job while they adapt to the new culture. Upgrade to the left seat can occur once the new pilot demonstrates both the flying skills and adaption to the specific skills of a jet charter pilot.

Delta Private Jets, a Wheels Up company, offers both an alternative to the airline life as well as a continuation of flying career to those pilots who have reached mandatory retirement.

According to Pilot Recruiter, Dorinda Hudepohl, the diversity of flying and schedule are some of the most attractive features to the 65+ pilots. “It’s a very different and diverse kind of flying,” she explains. “You’re not flying into the same cities. You’re flying into uncontrolled fields – it keeps your skills sharp.”

The standard full-time schedule is 8 on and 6 off; for pilots used to a 4 on, 3 off schedule, it is definitely more time with family. The 135 flying is very different, however, where the pilots have a lot more involvement with the processes leading up to the flight than they did at the airlines. From flight planning and fuel management, to loading up the plane and passenger contact, it is a very different world.

Although a number of its pilots previously flew for Delta, the company hires pilots from other backgrounds as well, according to Mark Bishop, Director of Flight Operations. Keeping with its airline roots, Delta Private Jets uses seniority to determine upgrades, but many first officers are young and on a career path to flow into Delta Air Lines at some point. A few schedules actually offer pilots a part time option, which translates into an 8 days on, 20 off schedule. Benefits and medical insurance are reduced for part time pilots, but it’s quite an opportunity for a pilot to keep a hand in the business while simultaneously finding time to travel and enjoy significant free time.

The jet charter pilot’s world has evolved considerably in recent years. Start with excellent aircraft to fly, add compensation and quality of life benefits courtesy of the pilot shortage, blend in a commute to work experience superior to the average airline pilot job, and you end up with a particularly attractive option for those who wish to continue flying past age 65.

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