London Central Employment Tribunal has ruled that the National Air Traffic Services (NATS) ban on considering candidates aged 36 and above for air traffic control jobs is unlawful under the 2006 Age Discrimination regulations.
The case was brought by P Baker, 51, who made an online application to NATS for a trainee air traffic controller position but was rejected automatically because of his age. He had aviation experience, including a civil pilot's licence, and had wished to pursue a career as a commercial pilot but lacked the funds to pursue the necessary qualifications.
NATS told the tribunal that its age limit was based on concerns about safety, possible declines in performance related to age, and the cost of training, which it put at about £600,000 per trainee. It told Personnel Today that it had commissioned independent research which indicated that performance in relevant areas could fall away with age.
But Baker's legal representative, Virginia Allen, associate at Baker and McKenzie, said NATS "didn't supply sufficient evidence to justify its age limit."
NATS said it was "disappointed by the tribunal's judgment".
"Independent research demonstrated that the skills used by controllers working in a high-performance environment decline after age 45 unless the individual has some 10 years' experience before that point. NATS controllers must be capable of operating to our exacting standards in some of the world's busiest and most complex environments."
It added: "Our only interest has been to provide a safe air traffic control service, and we will be taking time to study the tribunal's decision before deciding how best to move forward."
When the age discrimination regulations were applied in 2006, NATS removed the age limit from its recruitment website and did recruit a 41-year-old to a trainee position, but it reinstated the age limit in 2007.
Allen said Baker may re-apply if NATS changes its recruitment policy. Baker and McKenzie said that many countries do not operate a ban on older recruits, including Canada, Spain and Ireland. But the US has an upper age limit of 25 for trainees, as did NATS in the 1980s.
The tribunal said it was "concerned that the assumptions about age are ingrained and will be difficult to eradicate". It added that NATS "may need to consider a robust review of their procedures to ensure that any age bias is removed".
Baker said he was "absolutely delighted with the judgment. I always thought the refusal to consider my application was a clear act of age discrimination."
Retirement age for NATS air traffic controllers is 60.