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A former Air Canada first officer wants the carrier to raise the mandatory retirement age for pilots to 65 from 60, part of a growing chorus in the cockpit accusing the airline of engaging in age discrimination.

"I should still be flying for Air Canada," said George Vilven, 62, from his home in Airdrie, Alta., just north of Calgary. He said his "cognitive and motor skills" as the second pilot at the controls were in top form when Air Canada forced him into retirement after he turned 60 in August, 2003.

Mr. Vilven's complaint is scheduled to be presented in January in Ottawa to the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, which has set aside 10 days to hear the case.

A group of pilots who belong to the Fly Past 60 Coalition is supporting Mr. Vilven's retire-at-65 campaign. Coalition members include Raymond Hall, an Air Canada pilot who turns 57 on Wednesday, and several other pilots who are approaching 60 or recently turned 60.

Mr. Hall, who joined Air Canada 33 years ago, said he will have no choice but to leave the airline in July, 2009, unless the tribunal finds that the carrier is discriminating against its pilots on the basis of age.

Air Canada's current retirement policy is "contrary to his desire to exercise his right to remain employed," the coalition said in a recent submission to the tribunal.

Physical examinations every six months are already required for Air Canada pilots over 40, and that process would ensure that pilots above 60 stay at the top of their game, the coalition maintains. Regular "proficiency checks" for all pilots also ensure safety, it adds.

The International Civil Aviation Organization, an agency of the United Nations, may recommend this November that the retirement age for pilots be increased to 65 from 60, as long as one of the pilots in a two-pilot crew is younger than 60. "The current policy has been in place since the 1960s and needs to be revisited," Mr. Hall said.

Air Canada maintains that its retirement policy doesn't contravene the Canadian Human Rights Act. The country's flag carrier dismissed comparisons with smaller airlines that allow pilots to work under certain conditions beyond 60. For instance, Air Canada Jazz and WestJet Airlines Ltd. allow pilots to work only on domestic routes from 60 to 65, but those involve shorter hauls on average than Air Canada's extensive international network.

Air Canada points out major U.S. airlines continue to abide by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration's age-60 retirement rule for pilots while numerous foreign carriers have retirement ages ranging between 55 and 60. "Air Canada is a major international, intercontinental airline whose pilots must meet the requirements of the countries to which they fly," it argues.

The Air Canada Pilots Association, which represents 3,100 members, conducted an April survey that indicated a sizable majority of the respondents want to keep the mandatory retirement age at 60. Of those who voted, 1,382 pilots supported the current system and 458 voted against it.

ACPA's master executive council supports Air Canada's stance of defending the existing retirement policy. "ACPA believes it is a benefit for pilots to be able to retire at age 60 with a full pension," the union said in a statement. "Retirees are not required to stop working entirely upon retirement. Many move on to other occupations, such as a flying instructor with Air Canada."

The union also argues that junior-level pilots are able to climb the seniority ladder faster when senior-level pilots retire early. The more experienced the pilot, the better the aircraft, routes, schedules and pay.

But the Fly Past 60 Coalition insists individual rights are being trampled. Air Canada captains who belong to the coalition include Grant Foster and David Powell-Williams, both 59. Recently retired captains seeking to be reinstated include Kenwood Green, George Iddon and Ray Thwaites, all 60.

If the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal sides with Mr. Vilven, the original complainant, "it is conceivable that some persons recently forced to retire may be allowed to come back to work in their previous capacity," the coalition said.

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