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

March 9, 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: Rapid pollution increases may be as harmful to the heart as absolute levels

Related Stories

Rapid pollution increases may be as harmful to the heart as absolute levels

February 15, 2018
Rapid increases in pollution may be as harmful to the heart as sustained high levels, according to research published today in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, a European Society of Cardiology journal. The authors ...

Air pollution cancels positive health effects of exercise in older adults

December 5, 2017
Exposure to air pollution on city streets is enough to counter the beneficial health effects of exercise in adults over 60, according to a new study led by scientists at Imperial College London and Duke University.

How doctors are providing smarter care with electronic health records

January 9, 2018
The source of the common hospital-acquired infection known as C. diff can be hard to pin down in a busy, sprawling hospital, where patients might pick up the bug in countless locations.

The pros and cons of privatizing air traffic control

June 5, 2017
The U.S. air traffic control system, the world's largest and most complex, is in the midst of an era of unsurpassed safety. There has not been a fatal crash of a domestic airliner in the U.S. in eight years.

Pilots, air traffic controllers shifting to text messaging

September 27, 2016
Airline pilots and air traffic controllers are on schedule to switch to text communications at most of the nation's busiest airports by the end of the year, a milestone that holds the potential to reduce delays, prevent errors ...

Protein implicated in osteosarcoma's spread acts as air traffic controller

July 6, 2015
The investigation of a simple protein has uncovered its uniquely complicated role in the spread of the childhood cancer, osteosarcoma. It turns out the protein, called ezrin, acts like an air traffic controller, coordinating ...

Recommended for you

When it comes to our brains, there's no such thing as normal

February 20, 2018
There's nothing wrong with being a little weird. Because we think of psychological disorders on a continuum, we may worry when our own ways of thinking and behaving don't match up with our idealized notion of health. But ...

Jymmin: How a combination of exercise and music helps us feel less pain

February 20, 2018
Pain is essential for survival. However, it could also slow the progress of rehabilitation, or in its chronic form could become a distinct disorder. How strongly we feel it, among other factors, depends on our individual ...

College roommates underestimate each other's distress, new psychology research shows

February 19, 2018
College roommates are sensitive to their roommates' distress but tend to underestimate the level of distress being experienced by others, finds a newly published study from New York University psychology researchers.

New approaches in neuroscience show it's not all in your head

February 16, 2018
Our own unique experiences shape how we view the world and respond to the events in our lives. But experience is highly subjective. What's distressing or joyful to one person may be very different to another.

Link between hallucinations and dopamine not such a mystery, finds study

February 16, 2018
Researchers at Columbia University Irving Medical Center (CUIMC) and New York State Psychiatric Institute (NYSPI) found that people with schizophrenia who experience auditory hallucinations tend to hear what they expect, ...

People find comfort listening to the same songs over and over, study finds

February 16, 2018
With the frequency that some people play their favorite song, it's a good thing vinyl records aren't used often because they might wear out.

0 comments

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.