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Is Sully Too Old to Fly?

Mises Daily: Wednesday, May 13, 2009 by

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US Airways Flight 1549, Sully Sullenberger

The thrilling crash landing last January of US Airways Flight 1549 into the frigid waters of the Hudson River in New York captivated the mind. Truly, if Hollywood depicted this event, we would require our willing suspension of disbelief, knowing that such an outcome of a doomed plane could never happen that way in real life.

Yet it did. Finding his Airbus A320's ascent thwarted by a flock of birds cramming the plane's fuselage, pilot Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger glided his falling plane away first from buildings, then from the crowded George Washington Bridge, and then into the Hudson, where it should have broken up, or possibly flipped. That this maneuver even succeeded is miraculous. Airlines computer simulate this very event in training, and no pilot has ever landed without loss of virtual life.

Sully is someone I'd want flying my plane, and for all I know, he and others like him have. Unfortunately for me and for you, he has been spending his time lately in courtrooms instead of cockpits, defending his right to work to those who, if they had their way, would be cheering his pending retirement.

Pending? Well, yes. Sully is 58 years old, and before a law passed by Congress in December 2007, he would have been forced to retire at age 60. (The mandatory retirement age is now 65.) To understand why this law was ever in place requires an understanding of economic and regulatory history.

Flashback to 1959. The airline industry is on the cusp of its fifth decade, but there is a problem facing younger pilots who want to enter it. The old-timers just won't retire, and this frustrates potential entrants with much flying experience and training, thanks to military service in World War II, Korea, and elsewhere. The result is a sort of malinvestment in human capital, with many men trained to be pilots without private-sector jobs to justify the training.

What is a young, aspiring pilot to do? Well, he and his peers could make their presence and skills known to the airlines, signaling that the labor market had changed and that it would be possible to hire new pilots at lower wages. Not only would some airlines opt for the lower-priced laborers, thus lowering the airlines' reservation price required to provide flights to consumers, some owners of capital might invest in new airlines, thus increasing consumer choice, industry output, and create a downward pressure on prices.

Such would be the market solution, coordinated by changes in relative prices, and it would be peaceful, characterized by voluntary interaction and compromise by the parties involved. Unfortunately, there was another option, requiring the pilot to join a pilots union to lobby the federal government to enact rules forcing existing pilots to retire at age 60. All the union needed was a lobbying presence and some sympathetic regulators at the FAA.

Guess which option was chosen? It seems that in 1959, the aspiring pilots found a sympathetic ear in C.R. Smith, the then-president of American Airlines who also wanted to ground his older pilots. The industry was switching to jet engines, and Smith wanted to freeload off of the tax-supported training with those engines many of the younger pilots received in the military. So Smith instructed his lobbyists in Washington to rewrite FAA rules to force retirement at 60, and in December of 1959, an FAA administrator named Elwood R. Quesada simply authorized them. In January of 1961, Quesada retired from the FAA and immediately joined the board of directors of American Airlines. The retirement age rule has been in effect for almost 50 years.

It is another case of unions doing what unions do, which, like the medieval guilds before them, involves some form of extramarket force to restrict entry into their professions, reduce competition for their labor services, and allow those who can obtain union membership to receive higher wages than they otherwise would.

It is also a case of modern mercantilism at work, with corporations teaming with the state to effect outcomes different from what would have resulted if market forces had dominated, thus reflecting the chummy relationship that develops between regulators and the regulated, in which the former can become captured by the latter. By supplying firms the regulation they want — whether to increase costs on possible competitors or to usurp market surplus that would otherwise go to consumers — regulators can use "public service" as a stepping-stone to significant income in the private sector. Membership on corporate boards is only one way that firms repay former public officials — senators, congressmen, and higher-level bureaucrats — for services rendered during their time in government.

Consumers are hardly better off because of it. Many Sully Sullenbergers have been forced to retire before Congress extended the retirement age, based on the belief that US airlines, if allowed to make rules on their own, would allow unhealthy or incompetent pilots to man their expensive aircraft, regardless of age. That such decisions are better made by government officials, separated from the industry and bearing no direct cost if they decide incorrectly, is a scandal. Why no outrage from foes of age discrimination when the perpetrator is the state itself? Government control of hiring in the private sector is a characteristic of fascism, not capitalism.

Those who advocate an expansive federal government must not bemoan the lobbying and rent-seeking of modern life, because it is part-and-parcel with expansive federal government. Genuine market economies — meaning those that maximize the long-term benefits to consumers and producers — thrive when state power is minimized. With this in mind, abolishing the FAA and firing its bureaucrats who hinder the market order would constitute a step in the right direction. Such an event would surely cause an expensive and wasteful airline cartel to lose its greatest ally.

If this happens before Sully Sullenberger reaches 65, who knows? Like many of his fellow noncommercial pilots, he may opt to fly into his seventies, if US Airways will have him. It might make escaping New York a more pleasant experience.