The findings fit neatly with a study in 2006 by Dana Broach and David Schroeder of the FAA in which they analyzed error rates of controllers as a function of age going all the way back to the 1970s. They found no evidence of any relationship between age and performance.
Nunes has studied air traffic controllers for six or seven years, he said, because when he was a kid, that's what he wanted to become. However, Nunes couldn't fulfill his dream because of a medical condition.
He pointed out in the interview that controlling the airways is a relatively young field, dating back to the 1950s when there was a mid-air collision over Colorado. By the 1960s, radar became ubiquitous, and news photos showed controllers staring at dark screens as they tried to keep planes from running into each other.
"At the time, the question was asked if it is appropriate for older individuals to manage critical safety systems" in many fields, not just air traffic control, Nunes said. "We all know that as you get older, you see a decline across a range of cognitive functions."
That's as true today as it was back in the 1960s, but much has changed since then, including the fact that we live longer, and hopefully healthier, lives. So, Nunes asked a basic question: Should the age limitation set decades ago still apply?
To find out, he had to return to his native Canada, where the retirement age for controllers is 65. He recruited 36 controllers, half of whom averaged 24 years old, and half of whom averaged 57 with 34 years experience. He also recruited 36 non-controllers for comparison. All of the participants went through a battery of tests, including cognitive and simulated air traffic control tasks, ranging from routine to complex.
Predicted age-related declines were observed in all groups, but experience helped the older controllers compensate for that loss, the researchers said.
The older guys acted "in a more measured fashion to achieve performance that rivals that of their younger counterparts, who exhibited better cognitive ability," they concluded.
The researchers believe their findings would apply to many fields, especially complex areas like medicine, where experience can be as rewarding as youthful cognition.
Other researchers have reached similar conclusions in recent years, suggesting that arbitrary retirement mandates may themselves be outdated.
"Workers should get and keep jobs on the basis of their ability, not their age," the researchers concluded.
Keeping older controllers on the job longer, if they are willing, could help avoid a crisis in this country, as well as other countries around the world that, years ago, adopted the U.S. requirement of mandatory retirements.
One study last year concluded that unless some solution is found soon, the skies could become less crowded, and not just because of midair collisions. Some airlines will likely be forced to cancel or delay flights, or send loaded jetliners through uncontrolled airspace. That thought is enough to make anyone age.