Dangerous Data

You’ve got to wonder who is financing this research.

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

”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 air traffic controller, the older and younger controllers were equally capable. (The older non-controllers had significant deficits, however.) “

I don’t know if my non-controller readers can detect all the flaws in that short statement or not. I know for certain that older controllers can. Having been one, I can tell you with absolutely no doubt in my mind whatsoever, older controllers become mentally slower. And unlike this study, my data isn’t based on “simulated...tasks “.

The key is in this portion; “older subjects were slower on simple memory or decision-making tasks...“ I don’t care if those tasks were not directly related to air traffic control or not. Those are the capabilities that define who can be an air traffic controller -- or not. Controllers have to memorize a blizzard of information and instant recall is important. One of the first tasks at the FAA Academy is to memorize a map of the airspace -- in one day. And as far as “decision-making tasks” -- that’s all an air traffic controller does all day. Instantaneously. Thousands upon thousands of decisions just as fast as you can make them. “Slower” is not an option.

But slower is what we all become as we get older. And it is progressive. Every year past a controller’s peak (somewhere around age 40) becomes more dangerous. True, older controllers have a treasure chest of experience to rely upon. It is also true that controllers are individuals. Some peak earlier than others. Some don’t slow down as quickly. Having worked with some older controllers that were “grandfathered” in -- in other words, they hired on before the mandatory retirement rule -- I’ve witnessed firsthand what it’s like being in your 60s and working traffic at a very busy air traffic facility. It is not pretty.

I, of course, recommend you read this article. I also hope you’ll keep this in mind as you’re reading it. This idea is dangerous. There are far too many controllers that can’t rein in their outsized egos and want to believe they’ve still “got it.” They’ve been special their entire lives -- possessing a skill that few have -- and they desperately want to believe that they are special still. That they are the one guy that is going to beat the odds. There might be one who is. There are hundreds that believe they are. They aren’t.

This study is like throwing a lifeline to a drowning man. There will be hundreds that will cling to it with a death grip. You might think that I fear what he FAA will do with the data. True, but I have a larger concern.

Take a look at your 401K statement. Chances are, it looks like a disaster. Now, imagine if you were a 54-year-old controller. You’re hard up against a mandatory retirement age of 56 and your retirement just got wiped out. Would you be looking for a lifeline ?

In this respect, controllers are no different than anyone else. Desperate people make bad decisions.

Don Brown
March 9, 2009


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