Is age just a number? Aviation insurance companies don’t think so.

by Bob Worthington
Copyright 2021. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine – print & online April/May 2021 issue

Is your age just a number as opposed to it being a definitive measure of your physical or mental abilities? Many individuals believe that just being 65 or 80 or 85 does not render one physically and intellectually diminished. But insurance companies do. Why? Insurance rates are based on broad factors of statistics, actuarial tables, scientific data, and the probability of risk. So, each age of a pilot has an assigned risk factor based on considerable data to determine the risk covered and the cost (and the willingness of the company to insure that risk). 

In the February/March 2021 issue of Midwest Flyer Magazine, insurance agent Victoria Neuville, explained why aging aviators are seeing higher and higher insurance premiums. She did comment that older pilots tend to have more accidents than younger pilots. As an aviation psychologist (and former FAA safety counselor), I have devoted time to researching getting older and flying, and how to remain a safe pilot when aging. There are ways to keep the cost of aircraft insurance lower than that of other fellow pilots and I can tell you what to do.

First is to realize how the insurance industry operates. They expend considerable time and money analyzing what risks are involved and the statistical chance of an event or behavior occurring that will require them to pay out for a mishap. They must calculate the chance of something happening which will cost them money. The greater the risk involved and the higher the value of the plane, the higher the cost. Victoria covered why rates are increasing.

Consider a brick home being insured that is half a block from a highly rated fire station and how long it would take for fire trucks and superior firefighters to get to your home, if on fire. Compare the insurance costs to a log cabin at the end of a mile dirt road, seven miles from a volunteer fire station. The exterior is more inflammable, the distance from firetrucks greater, and the fire crew less trained. Obviously, the risk for protecting the log home is much higher,  thus more costly.

This same concept is applied in the aircraft insurance business. Insurance companies have completed countless studies to understand what pilots are at a greater risk and why. The cost of aviation risks is dependent on the pilot, his or her training and experience, the age and complexity of the aircraft, and the type of flying done. Age certainly is a factor…. but …. not always a predominant consideration, until one approaches 80.

To verify my beliefs, I queried some of my fellow pilots, asking if they were experiencing astronomical increases in their aircraft premiums. Because they are my friends, they are not young pilots (all over 60 to the mid-80s). They all live in different states. Their average increase in premiums was less than 10% (running from nothing to 30%). The one exception is a pilot aged 84, which I will explain later.

These pilot friends are less of a risk than the average general aviation pilot. The pilots in their 60s are not concerned with aging and obtaining insurance. Those in their late 70s are concerned about being able to acquire affordable coverage. Those in their 80s go from year to year and find the process of insuring their plane exceedingly difficult, costly, and requiring considerable accommodations by the pilot. Here is what they have experienced in the quest to insure their aircraft.

They are experienced pilots with an average flight time of 5250 hours spread over 46 years of flying. Their certificates are either private or commercial, but all are instrument rated, flying high-performance aircraft (some are flight instructors and have multiple ratings and certificates). This means that their level of training and experience is high.

The average age of their aircraft is 40 years, mostly fixed gear, so the hull value of their aircraft is not like a new aircraft. Two factors become the exception between these pilots and most other GA pilots: 1) These pilots are committed to aviation safety by either teaching safety courses and instructing or holding leadership positions in several aviation and pilot organizations. 2) The training these pilots receive each year is outstanding! Online seminars, FAA WINGS seminars, teaching safety courses, airplane manufacturer organization owner training, and flight exams (one person obtains an instrument currency flight test every 90 days). These pilots are totally committed to aviation safety…they practice what they preach.

Another factor is that most of these pilots fly only for personal reasons and personal business, yet all but one does not use the Basic Med; they get a Class II or III medical (meaning a professional Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) is certifying their physical well-being to fly). They fly all year round averaging 100 hours a year (actual flight time per year ran from 35 to 200 hours).

When asked about their concerns for the future and obtaining affordable insurance, their responses varied considerably. Most had some concerns but have plans for their future. These ranged from downsizing their aircraft to selling it, to joining a flying club to renting. Some will just quit flying, while some will consider flying without insurance.

Most said their age was not a problem getting insurance at an equitable cost. But most think age and acquiring affordable insurance will become a problem in the future.

When you get into your eighties, it does change. The 84-year-old pilot was notified last year, he would no longer be insured. He was devastated. So, he began seeking insurance from other companies with little luck. One company would insure him only if he flew with another (younger) instrument-rated pilot with 1000 hours or more. This requirement was too arduous to comply with on every flight. The premium cost was $6,000. He was finally able to secure insurance through his long-time agent, but only by considerable wrangling and submission of reams of paperwork, detailing his flying record and commitment to aviation safety. But he could only get liability and medical – his hull coverage only applies when the plane is on the ground (he flies a complex, high-performance aircraft) and the cost doubled.

Another pilot belongs to a local flying club comprised of older pilots. Some have been able to retain insurance by downsizing to smaller, slower, fixed-gear aircraft. Some fly, uninsured.

All of my pilot friends demonstrate a significant commitment to aviation safety. Like the brick house around the corner from a fire station, the insurable risk is lower. 

As one gets older, though, more can go wrong with your body, without any signs or symptoms. A few days after passing an FAA medical exam, at age 78, I was diagnosed with Ischemic heart disease with a destroyed aortic valve (due to Agent Orange), requiring immediate open-heart surgery to stay alive. Therefore, as we age, parts of our body can decrease or fail to function at any time, without warning. Therefore, even the safest pilots enter a time in their lives when statistics rule against them despite how good they are, mentally, physically, or aviation-wise. At that point in time, the risk becomes higher and insurance costs rise or become impossible to acquire.

We are living longer. Defects that would kill us at age 60 a generation ago are now mitigated by medical science. Physical infirmities can now be controlled by medicines, operations, implants, or artificial components, thus, we can live longer.

Until December 13, 2007, the United States limited its pilots operating under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations (14 CFR) Part 121 air carrier to age 60. Now those pilots may continue flying until age 65, as specified in the Act. But as we age, despite modern medicine, the risk of an undetected medical condition which can incapacitate us rises to the point where an insurance company will not take on the risk.

So, at some point in our aviation lives, we must face the facts that the cost and/or risk of continued flying is too great, and we should stop.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Pilot, Viet Nam veteran and former university professor, Bob Worthington of Las Cruces, New Mexico, is the author of “Under Fire with ARVN Infantry” (https://mcfarlandbooks.com/product/Under-Fire-with-ARVN-Infantry/), and producer of the 2019 film “Combat Advisor in Vietnam” (www.borderlandsmedia.com). Facebook: Bob Worthington Writer (www.BobWorthingtonWriter.com).

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor, mechanic, attorney and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual and instructional materials before attempting any procedures or following any advice discussed herein.

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