In late 1959, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) released its “Age 60 Rule,” which provided that pilots over 60 could not participate in “part 121 operations.” These operations include piloting large commercial passenger aircraft, smaller propeller aircraft with 10 or more passenger seats, and common carriage operations of all-cargo aircraft with a payload capacity of 7,500 pounds—essentially forcing mandatory retirement for all airline pilots as soon as they reached age 60. As his 60th birthday rapidly approached, Captain Michael Gitt appealed to the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) to assist him with an age discrimination lawsuit against Eastern Airlines to help him overturn the “Age 60 Rule,” an attempt to leverage the new Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA).
Michael Gitt was born in 1908 in New York, just five years after the first flight of the Wright Brothers. In 1930, he applied to join a chapter of the Nicholas-Beazley Flying Club Association with a 1/30th interest, which included a stake in an aircraft and guaranteed solo flying time. He marked his first solo flight on May 13, 1931 in a Brunner Winkle Bird and soon after bought a Buhl Flying Bull Pup. By 1935, he owned a Taylor Cub and had started a “diversified aeronautical enterprise consisting principally of flight instruction, sales, service and charting of airplanes” at the Flushing Airport.
Gitt’s dream was to be an airline pilot. He held a chauffeur’s license for many years as a side business. He worked contract jobs with Bennett Air Service, Seversky Aircraft Corporation, Aero Service Corporation, and the Civilian Pilot Training Program. He took the civil service exam and filed applications with Pan American Grace Airways, Mid Continent, Continental, Pennsylvania-Central, Northwestern, United Airlines, TWA, and American, to no avail. Airlines cited his lack of formal education (he had only completed two years of high school), their requirement of at least 1200 flight hours, and, ironically, an age limit of 30 years for the position of first officer (Gitt was 32 at the time).
Canadian Colonial Airways hired Gitt in August 1940 as a commercial airline pilot. It was a world where flight hours and seniority meant everything—the best routes, the best planes, leaves of absence, vacation time, continued training, etc. And all of this was based upon delicate contract negotiations between the airlines and the pilots’ unions, of which Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) was one of the largest. Gitt was an active member of ALPA Local Council #28 (Colonial Airlines) from the beginning of his commercial airline career. Gitt was also a member of the ALPA Retirement Committee, which worked in the late 1940s to establish a system for retired airline pilots. His wife, Cornelia (Connie) Gitt, who had flight time of her own, was also involved in working on a wives’ safety petition.
Gitt was known for filing many letters of grievance to the airline and ALPA. In 1943, he arranged of leave of absence from Colonial Airlines (the new name of Canadian Colonial as of 1942) to work as an experimental pilot for Sperry Gyroscope’s war efforts. When he was “released” instead, he worked with ALPA to regain his position. In 1949, he filed an official grievance against Colonial when the airline suddenly extended a deadline to bid for a Bermuda flight route, a contract violation according to Gitt, who initially had seniority to bid for and be granted the run. But after the extension, another pilot with more seniority earned the run instead. Although the grievance was denied in April 1950, the appeals process lasted through 1952, further complicated by a corruption investigation into Colonial president Sigmund “Rad” Janus.
The idea of a mandatory retirement age for pilots had a long history. Some airlines had always had age limits for pilots. But on December 1, 1959, the newly renamed FAA under retired Air Force General Elwood "Pete" Quesada issued the “Age 60 Rule” for all airline pilots, scheduled to go into effect in March 1960. The FAA claimed that it was a matter of public safety to remove older pilots with possibly deteriorating health. The advent of newer planes with turbojet technology enhanced that argument—these aircraft would have been assigned to older pilots under seniority rules. While the Air Transport Association and the Civil Aviation Medicine Association supported the rule, the ALPA immediately sued, losing the case of ALPA v Quesada. ALPA tried and failed again in 1966 when S.W. Hunter requested an exemption to the rule, volunteering to get a physical every three months. Soon after, a Captain Furlow provided a physical at the Lovelace Foundation (known for its testing for the US Astronaut program, particularly the Women in Space Program) and was also denied.
Meanwhile, Colonial Airlines merged with Eastern Airlines in 1956 and Michael Gitt continued as a commercial pilot, earning commendations from passengers and remaining active with ALPA. As the clock ticked down to his 60th birthday on May 13, 1968, Gitt petitioned for a waiver from the FAA to extend his career beyond 60—he failed. He also asked the ALPA to form a committee to study the problem, acknowledging that he may not be able to get the courts to reverse the rule, but that at least the union could work on future possibilities. In November 1967, a small group of Eastern executives made a trip to Washington, DC, to explore legislative possibilities. Though some, including ALPA President Charles Ruby, had misgivings about a committee, the Special Committee on Compulsory Retirement (“Age 60 Committee” for short) was formed in early 1968.
The Committee tried many tactics in its attempts to gain support in Congress. In September 1968, they wrote to New Jersey Senator Harrison A. Williams regarding his opposition to mandatory compulsory retirement. The ALPA recalled to Williams his September 9, 1968 entry into the Federal Register in which he cited the longevity of baseball player Satchel Paige as a warning against arbitrary mandatory retirements.[*]
Gitt was relentless in his research regarding the Age 60 Rule and he believed that he had found a new potential weapon to continue the pursuit of his dream as a pilot—the recently passed Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA). The law protected certain applicants and employees 40 years of age and older from discrimination on the basis of age in hiring, promotion, discharge, compensation, or terms, conditions or privileges of employment. Unfortunately, his lawyers found that the Department of Labor (DOL) had already addressed the Age 60 Rule, determining that age was a “bona fide occupational qualification (BOFQ)” for employment as a pilot and not subject to ADEA. While they cautioned that the age discrimination argument would not win, it should be kept in their back pocket if other points failed.
Other possibilities mentioned for pilots over the age of 60 were to continue with the airlines as flight instructors, ferry pilots, or check pilots. But Gitt found that at Eastern he was caught in a catch-22. Most support roles still required continued eligibility to fly the line as a full pilot, which he could not do over 60. He applied to be a supervisory pilot, but the airline maintained that he was not an eligible candidate since he had not applied for that kind of position before forced retirement, having preferred to fly the line.
Undeterred, Gitt enlisted attorney F. Lee Bailey to file a human rights law violation complaint against Eastern Airlines and its vice president S.L. Higgenbottom in the State of New York’s Division of Human Rights. In this complaint, Gitt asked to be rehired in an alternate position with his seniority restored, reimbursement for lost wages, and court costs. The public hearing took place on July 15, 1969. On February 6, 1970, Commissioner Robert Mangum issued his findings that the airline “did not commit any unlawful discriminatory acts against [Gitt] because of his age.”
After this defeat, Gitt resigned himself to retirement. Although he could no longer fly for a large commercial airline, he continued to fly for some time. In 1970, he listed himself as the chief pilot for Airspur Corp. He went on to be the director of marine activities for the Park District of Great Neck and was certified by the US Coast Guard and the Red Cross as a sailing instructor. He later fulfilled a lifelong dream, earning his glider pilot license and making several flights in a Schweitzer SGS 2-33 Glider. Michael Gitt remained an active member of the Retired Eastern Pilots Association (REPA) until his death in 2002.
The ALPA and pilots continued their battle against the “Age 60 Rule” for decades after its announcement in 1959 and implementation in 1960. President George W. Bush signed the Fair Treatment for Experienced Pilots Act raising the retirement age to 65 in 2007.
[*] In August 1968, Satchel Paige was back in the headlines when the Atlanta Braves signed him to a new contract at the age of 62. He had played his last professional baseball game just a few days shy of age 60. Since the majority of his playing days were spent in the Negro Leagues, ineligible to play in segregated Major League Baseball, he came in mere days short of qualifying for a pension. The Braves contract gave him the service time needed for his pension.