Study Shows Older Controllers Can Do The Job — But Do They Want To?

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Older air traffic controllers can head off midair collisions at least as well as younger controllers, using experience to compensate for age-related declines in mental sharpness, according to a report published this month by the American Psychological Association. Controllers in the U.S. face a mandatory retirement age of 56, which the report suggests should be reconsidered. "Given substantial experience, older adults may be quite capable of performing at high levels of proficiency on fast-paced demanding, real-world tasks," wrote Ashley Nunes and Arthur F. Kramer, researchers at the University of Illinois. However, while airline pilots lobbied for years to raise their mandatory retirement age of 60, no such movement has been seen among controllers. "Only 2 percent of all controller retirees the past three years reached the mandatory retirement age of 56," Doug Church, spokesman for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, told AVweb on Tuesday. "So it's irrelevant and foolish to raise the issue of mandatory retirement in any discussion of this kind. Controllers in this country are not staying to 56." Church blames hostile working conditions and pay cuts for destroying morale and removing any incentive to stay even until 56, never mind beyond.

"This report reached the right conclusion but offered the wrong recommendation," Church said. "That is to say, we agree that experienced, veteran controllers are smart, highly skilled, and know the best, most efficient ways to do their job and handle their airspace. ... But all that aside, this is a job in this country that takes a brutal mental and physical toll on these controllers and they are mostly burned out and ready to retire between 50 and 56. They earned their retirement." Church also noted that the controllers in the study were recruited from Canada, where working conditions and workloads are very different than in the U.S.

The researchers evaluated 36 certified air traffic controllers and 36 non-controllers, with 18 older and 18 younger adults per group. On most lab tests of cognitive processes such as inhibitory control, task switching, visual spatial processing, working memory and processing speed, the authors observed predictable age-related declines among all groups. However, on the simulations, experience helped the older controllers to compensate to a significant degree for those declines. "Older controllers performed quite well on the air traffic control tasks," the authors wrote, adding that the benefit of experience was greatest when it came to solving the most complex simulated air traffic problems. Older controllers also issued fewer commands than younger controllers, while achieving the same results. According to the researchers, older controllers acted "in a more measured fashion to achieve performance that rivals that of their younger counterparts, who exhibited better cognitive ability." The authors added that to harness the abilities of older workers, society needs to overcome negative stereotypes about aging. "Workers should get and keep jobs on the basis of their ability, not their age," they concluded.

To read the full text of the research report, click here.