Older air traffic controllers perform as well as young on job-related tasks

Mar 09, 2009

In a study that challenges the mandatory retirement of air traffic controllers at the age of 56 in the U.S., researchers have found that air traffic controllers up to age 64 perform as well as their young colleagues on complex, job-related tasks.

The study of Canadian air traffic controllers, who can work up to age 65, appears this month in the .

The researchers found that while older air traffic controllers experience normal age-related declines in some , their expertise on the job enables them to overcome these deficits and function on a par with their younger peers.

The issue of mandatory retirement is especially pressing because a large proportion of the nation's air traffic controllers are now retiring, or nearing retirement age.

According to a congressional subcommittee hearing on the matter in 2008, most of the FAA's current 14,800 controllers were hired during the mid-1980s, after then-President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 controllers who had gone on strike. Several government reports have warned that the upcoming wave of retirements could undermine the safety of the nation's aviation system.

"The question we were interested in was whether older controllers could continue to do the job," said University of Illinois psychology professor Art Kramer, who conducted the study with graduate student Ashley Nunes.

"If so, perhaps we could keep these people on the job for a little longer and this way provide more time for the transition and appropriate training of new controllers."

Kramer has spent decades studying age-related declines in and the factors that sometimes slow or offset the deficits that normally occur.

The new study compared older and younger controllers with one another and with their age-matched peers who were not air traffic controllers. All of the study subjects performed a battery of and simulated air traffic control tasks, which varied in difficulty.

On simple cognitive tasks, the older controllers (aged 53 to 64) were similar to the older non-controllers. Compared with their younger peers (aged 20 to 27), the older subjects were slower on simple memory or decision-making tasks that were not directly related to air traffic control. But on the tests that simulated the tasks of an , the older and younger controllers were equally capable. (The older non-controllers had significant deficits, however.)

"Despite the fact that these old controllers are not superpeople in a cognitive sense, they still do really well on complex simulated air traffic control tasks that are representative of what they do every day," Kramer said. "They do well, one would surmise, because they've gained decades of knowledge in their profession that's allowed them to offset the costs of not having quite the memory they used to have, and certainly not being able to respond as quickly as they once could."

The study points to the distinction between "fluid intelligence" and "crystallized intelligence," Kramer said. Fluid intelligence includes memory capacity and speed of recall; crystallized intelligence is the expertise that comes from years of attention and practice.

"Fluid intelligence declines with age, as it did in our controllers," Kramer said. "But despite that, the many years of experience, the many years of building domain-relevant knowledge in their area of expertise allows them to offset or compensate for these losses in fluid intelligence and do the job really well, just as well as the younger ones."

Source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Explore further: Suicides by US girls and young women continue to climb

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Clearing up Europe's air pollution hotspots

Feb 19, 2015

Current air quality legislation in Europe will lead to significant improvements in particulate matter pollution, but without further emission control efforts, many areas of Europe will continue to see air ...

Who needs a hybrid when there's a diesel Jetta?

Feb 18, 2015

For 2015, Volkswagen's best-selling vehicle, the Jetta compact sedan, builds on its fine road handling character and adds a nicer interior, freshened front and rear styling, new safety features and a more fuel thrifty diesel ...

Recommended for you

Confidence gap between male and female med students

4 hours ago

(HealthDay)—Female medical students perform at the same or higher level as men, but they lack confidence compared with men, according to a letter published in the March 3 issue of the Annals of Internal Me ...

No link between psychedelics and mental health problems

Mar 05, 2015

The use of psychedelics, such as LSD and magic mushrooms, does not increase a person's risk of developing mental health problems, according to an analysis of information from more than 135,000 randomly chosen people, including ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.