Never too old for air traffic control

Air traffic controllers discover that even public safety concerns can't trump age discrimination laws...

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

NATS, the body in charge of the UK’s air traffic control system, has been found guilty of age discrimination after refusing to hire a 50-year-old man. Nats had attempted to argue that it was only trying to provide a safe service for the public – but not surprisingly, the tribunal ruled that its policy of not hiring anyone under the age of 35, on the grounds that people get steadily worse at the job thereafter, wasn’t really in keeping with anti-ageism rules. Fancy that.

In some ways, you can see where Nats is coming from. Air traffic control is one of those professions where you really want people to be on top of their game, given that the alternative is big lumps of aeroplane crashing into each other in the skies above our airports. People want to be confident that their air traffic controllers won’t make mistakes – so if Nats says that people under 35 perform better in the role, we’re sure there’ll be plenty of nervous fliers willing to take them at their word. On the other hand, quite how they expected to get away with this is beyond us. Unless we’re missing something, Nats appears to have argued that this guy was wrong for the job because he was less physically able, less likely to pay back his training costs, and less safe, solely because of his age. Breaches of the age discrimination law don’t get much more blatant than that.

Anyway, the tribunal was having none of it, ruling that their policy was ‘irrational’, ‘confused’ and ‘arbitrary’. Which is fair enough – quite why an extremely healthy 36-year-old with perfect vision should be less suitable for the job than an extremely short-sighted and unhealthy 34 year-old is a bit hard to see. The tribunal also warned that this culture of ageism could be hard to eradicate, and this is an important point: when the people at the top are setting policies like this, everyone in the organisation is taught to think that discriminating on the grounds of age is acceptable. That won’t suddenly change overnight.

Nats will presumably now have to bring in some kind of standard aptitude test (like that of the RAF) to make sure that all applicants are screened equally. Chances are that they’ll probably still end up hiring 98% of the same people they would have done before, after expending considerable amounts of time and money on a new set-up. Still, the lesson of this little episode is that there’s no good excuse for age discrimination these days; even dark warnings of planes falling out of the sky won’t legitimise bending the rules. So companies need to make sure they shape up – both in terms of policy and practice...

In today's bulletin:

Lloyds plummets as HBOS slumps to £11bn loss
Luke Johnson on why Channel 4 must stay public
Never too old for air traffic control
General Motors on the ropes after £31bn loss
Lessons in personal matters, from YouTube

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