How to Solve the Air Traffic Controller Shortage

Nearly half of the air traffic controllers in the United States will reach the mandatory retirement age of 56 during the next three years, thus further aggravating an acute shortage of controllers across the country, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

About 7,100 controllers, mostly men, will have to retire by 2012 because in the 1960s it was decided that it's not safe to leave controllers on the job past that age due to the well established cognitive and physical declines associated with normal aging.

But that's poor policy based on outdated information, according to a new study out of the University of Illinois.

The study, published in the current issue of The Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that experience offsets the losses of aging, and, in fact, older controllers were at least as adept as their younger counterparts when it came to managing the most difficult situations that plague the nation's crowded airways.

"The question we posit is can age by itself be a barrier to someone performing a task as complex as air traffic control," Ashley Nunes, lead author of the study, said in a telephone interview. "The simple answer we find is no, within the scope of the age ranges examined, there is little scientific justification for usage of age as a barrier."

Or, as the study concludes: "In the face of age-related declines on basic cognitive abilities, older controllers were able to maintain high levels of performance on a variety of increasingly complex and difficult air traffic control tasks."

Weaker Guys Weeded Out Over Time

The life of a controller is not an easy task, and many wash out early, so "the older guys in many ways tend to be the best guys because they made it through the entire process, and they've lasted all the way to the end," Nunes said. "There's been very little evidence of age-related impairment among older controllers."

The study, sponsored by the National Institute on Aging, was conducted by Nunes as part of his doctoral research in psychology, along with his faculty adviser, Arthur Kramer.

The researchers conducted four experiments, ranging in complexity from two aircraft on a collision course (considered a routine challenge) to managing aircraft through traffic along a designated airspace (a difficult challenge that is similar to how controllers spend much of their time.)

Intellectual Shorthand Compensates for Age Decline

Interestingly, the younger controllers did a little better than the older guys on the routine challenge, but the older controllers performed at least as well, if not better, than their younger counterparts on the more complex challenges.

One reason, the researchers suggest, is that experience equips controllers with sort of an intellectual shorthand, and they can get the job done with fewer demands on both themselves and the pilots.

"There is a greater degree of awareness that is manifested by older controllers as to what they should or should not spend their time on," Nunes said. "They are less eager to act immediately. They are more likely to wait and just watch to see how the situation unfolds. There is a pattern in the mind that has evolved as a function of experiences. It's almost as though they can see four or five steps ahead."

They asked the pilots fewer questions, for example, because experience had taught them what is most likely to come next.

Study Finds No Relationship Between Age and Performance

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."

Testing Age Limitations of Yesteryear

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.

Research Applications Extend to Medicine and Other Fields

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.