Pilots Can Be Grounded at 65 as EU Judges Put Safety First

  • Difference in treatment helps guarantee safety, court says
  • EU court ruling is binding, clarifies law for carriers

A Deutsche Lufthansa AG pilot who was grounded when he turned 65 lost his age-discrimination fight at the European Union’s top court, which said EU legislation imposing the limit is justified for safety reasons.

“It is undeniable that the physical capabilities essential to the profession of an airline pilot diminish with age,” the EU Court of Justice said in a ruling Wednesday. Insisting on the limit prevents the possibility of age-related accidents, the court said.

The ruling is another setback for pilots like Werner Fries, a captain and an instructor for Lufthansa, who contested the airline’s decision to end his contract the moment he turned 65, and not let him work until his term ended two months later.

Pilot groups argue that it makes no sense to ground cockpit crews while there is a shortage of trained aviators and while the rest of the population is expected to work longer before retirement. Lufthansa pilots have a history of picking fights over “discriminatory” age limits. More than a decade ago a group of them challenged the then age limit of 60, saying they were fit, loved their jobs and wanted to fly as long as they passed all the required medical tests.

Lufthansa spokesman Joerg Waber said the company welcomed the decision. The European Cockpit Association, a group in Brussels representing pilots at EU level, said it’s studying the ruling and had no immediate comment.

‘Justified’ Limit

In Wednesday’s case, the German Federal Labor Court sought the EU tribunal’s guidance on the law. The EU judges in their decision acknowledged that setting the strict limit led to a difference in treatment based on age, but said this “is justified by the aim of ensuring civil aviation safety in Europe.”

The age limit, set in EU law, targets pilots of commercial flights transporting passengers, cargo or mail, a profession “characterized by a greater technical complexity of the aircraft used and a higher number of persons concerned than non-commercial air transport,” the court said.

The court said pilots grounded due to their age could still conduct “ferry flights, operated by an air carrier transporting no passengers and no cargo or mail” or work as instructors or examiners on board.”

The EU court’s ruling is binding on national courts and can’t be appealed.

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