Japan lifts pilot age limit to 67 amid Asian shortage

TOKYO - Japan on Thursday raised the age limit for being in charge of a commercial plane to 67, the latest effort in Asia for an industry struggling to get to grips with a drastic shortage of pilots.

The move looks set to make pilots working for Japanese airlines among the oldest in the world.

Until now, pilots have had to hang up their hats when they hit 65. Under Japan's new rules, those who are currently 64 or less will have the option of carrying on flying right up until their 68th birthday.

"We are aiming to ease a shortage while still ensuring safety," a transport ministry official told AFP.

Currently the country has 5,900 airline pilots, of whom 500 are aged 60 or over, according to the ministry.

But surging demand by passengers, especially in the booming low cost carrier 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.

Australian aviation expert Neil Hansford said globally there was a lack of skilled pilots and the use of older workers was "becoming pretty standardised except for some of the unionised countries".

"Sixty-five is very common now," Hansford told AFP.

Greg Waldron, the Asia managing editor of Singapore-based FlightGlobal, 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.

Lack of aviation culture

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 small airfields. There is a lot of small planes around so there is a lot of private ownership of aircraft and 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 licence. 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 per cent 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 Organisation and followed by many countries.