March 8, 2009

Older air traffic controllers compensate

Air traffic controllers in Canada as old as 64 perform as well as their younger colleagues, U.S. researchers say.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study of Canadian air traffic controllers, who can work up to age 65, appeared in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.

Researchers said while older air traffic controllers experience normal age-related declines in some cognitive skills, the study found that older controllers' expertise enables them to overcome these deficits.

Most of the FAA's current 14,800 controllers were hired during the mid-1980s, after then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 controllers who had gone on strike.

Government reports have warned that the upcoming wave of departures because of the mandatory U.S. retirement age of 56 could undermine 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. 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.