Japan raised the age limit for piloting a commercial plane to 67 on Thursday, in the latest effort in Asia to come to grips with a drastic pilot shortage.
The move looks set to make pilots working for Japanese airlines among the oldest in the world.
Until now, pilots had to retire their wings at 65. Under Japan’s new rules, pilots can carry on flying until their 68th birthday.
“We are aiming to ease a shortage while still ensuring safety,” a transport ministry official said.
Japan has 5,900 airline pilots, including 500 aged 60 or over, according to the ministry.
But surging demand from passengers, especially in the booming budget sector, has created a shortage that last year forced airlines to cancel thousands of flights.
Demographics are expected to exacerbate the problem in the 2030s, when a raft of Japan’s captains — now in their 40s — hit retirement age.
“The training is so expensive and a lot of (airlines) are paying retirement to pilots as well. If you start flying at 30 years old, you only have them for 35 years,” said Ronald Bishop, head of the aviation program at Australia’s Central Queensland University.
“All that money they spent making the pilots really safe and making sure they’re up to speed and they get the proper training — extending it by a few years helps them get their money back.”
Australian aviation expert Neil Hansford said globally there was a lack of skilled pilots and the use of older workers was “becoming pretty standardized, except for some of the unionized countries”.
“Sixty-five is very common now,” Hansford added.
Greg Waldron, the Asia managing editor of Singapore-based FlightGlobal, a specialist online news and information website, said the high cost of training to become a pilot put off many potential entrants.
“The industry is in a bit of tough patch now in terms of bringing in qualified, good individuals to become pilots,” he said, adding that the shortage is particularly acute in the Asia-Pacific region.
“In countries like the United States and Australia and even Europe, there is . . . a lot of exposure to aviation,” Waldron said.
“It is relatively cheap in countries like Australia or the United States to get a basic pilot’s license. It’s just a general aviation culture. (But) in Asia Pacific you don’t really have that type of activity going on as much.”
In Japan, a country where the over-65s make up a quarter of the population, the government says it will limit flying time for older pilots to 80 percent of the normal maximum, meaning 80 hours per month or 216 hours over three months.
The co-pilot of a 65-plus aircraft commander must be aged 59 or younger, and those who opt to continue beyond their 65th birthday will have to undergo epilepsy tests.
Waldron said older pilots did not pose a safety risk.
“The key thing is you want these guys to be well-trained, you want them to know how to react when there is an emergency. So if you have an older, more experienced pilot, he might be able to react to things differently compared to someone with less experience,” he said.
He added it was also important to have consistent, updated training.
“As long as they pass the tests in the simulators, as long as they keep performing and prove that they know what they are doing in the plane, I think the retirement age can be pushed up a bit.”
Japan raised the age limit for a pilot in command from 62 to 64 in 2004, a standard set by the International Civil Aviation Organization and followed by many countries.