NASA won't surrender data on air safety
The agency balked at releasing a massive survey of pilots.
By Rita Beamish
MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. - A vast national survey of pilots by NASA has found that safety issues, such as near collisions and runway interference, occur far more frequently than previously recognized, but the agency is refusing to release the information, fearing it would upset travelers and hurt airline profits.
NASA gathered the information under an $8.5 million federal safety project, through telephone interviews with roughly 24,000 commercial and general-aviation pilots over nearly four years.
Since shutting down the project more than a year ago, the agency has refused to make its survey data public.
Last week, it ordered the contractor that conducted the survey, Battelle Memorial Institute, to purge all related data from its computers.
Congress intervened yesterday, saying it would instruct NASA to preserve the data, after the Associated Press disclosed unofficially obtained details and NASA's effort to keep them secret.
The AP learned of the results from a person familiar with the survey who spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to discuss them.
The AP had sought to obtain the survey data for 14 months under the Freedom of Information Act.
"Release of the requested data, which are sensitive and safety-related, could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers and general-aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey," NASA's associate administrator, Thomas S. Luedtke, wrote in a final letter denying the information.
Although to most people NASA is associated with spaceflight, the agency has a storied history of aviation safety research by its experts.
Pilots reported at least twice as many bird strikes, near mid-air collisions and runway incursions as other government monitoring systems show, according to a person familiar with the results.
"If the airlines aren't safe, I want to know about it," said Rep. Brad Miller (D., N.C.), chairman of the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee. "I would rather not feel a false sense of security because they don't tell us."
Rep. Bart Gordon (D., Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, was expected to announce a formal investigation and instruct NASA and its contractors not to destroy any data, aides said.
The survey's purpose was to develop a new way of tracking safety trends and problems the airline industry could address. The project was shelved when NASA cut its budget as emphasis shifted to sending astronauts to the moon and Mars.
Survey managers at times briefed the FAA during the project. At one briefing in April 2003, FAA officials expressed concerns about the high numbers of incidents described by pilots because NASA's results were dramatically different from what the FAA's own monitoring systems showed.
An FAA spokeswoman, Laura Brown, said the agency questioned NASA's methodology. The FAA is confident it can identify safety problems before they lead to accidents, she said.
Aviation experts said NASA's pilot survey could be a valuable resource in an industry in which they believe many safety problems are underreported, even while deaths from commercial air crashes are rare and the number of deadly crashes has dropped in recent years.
"It gives us an awareness of not just the extent of the problems, but probably in some cases that the problems are there at all," said William Waldock, a safety science professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz.
Officials involved in the survey touted the unusually high response rate among pilots, 80 percent, and said they believed it was more reliable than reporting systems that rely on pilots to report incidents voluntarily.
"The data is strong," said Robert Dodd, an aviation safety expert hired by NASA to manage the survey. "Our process was very meticulously designed and very thorough. It was very scientific."
Pilot interviews lasted about 30 minutes, with standardized questions about how frequently they encountered equipment problems, smoke or fire, engine failure, passenger disturbances, severe turbulence, collisions with birds or inadequate tower communication, according to documents obtained by the AP.
Pilots also were asked about last-minute changes in landing instructions, flying too close to other planes, near collisions with ground vehicles or buildings, overweight takeoffs, or occasions when pilots left the cockpit.
The NASA survey, known officially as the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service, started after a White House commission in 1997 proposed reducing fatal air crashes by 80 percent as of this year. Crashes have dropped 65 percent, with a rate of about 1 fatality in about 4.5 million departures.
NASA is a government agency, and although that doesn't mean much with the current government in the White House they have a duty to act in as public a matter as possible. It's not like they're being asked about classified satellites or something like that.
Now I have no problem with them withholding pilot names and specific incident details in the interest of anonymity, but truth needs to prevail.
"Those Who Don't Learn From The Past Are Doomed To Repeat It."
I agree Murray, and look at this! Looks like they've changed their minds and will be releasing that information afterall:
(AP) -- Reversing course, NASA's administrator promised Congress on Wednesday he will publicly disclose results of an unprecedented federal aviation survey which found that aircraft near collisions, runway interference and other safety problems occur far more often than previously recognized.
NASA sent the raw data from the aviation survey to lawmakers on Tuesday.
NASA had said previously it was withholding the information because it feared it would upset air travelers and hurt airline profits. Citing an insider familiar with the research, The Associated Press reported last week on the survey of some 24,000 pilots.
In testimony prepared for a congressional hearing Wednesday, Griffin said he has directed release "as soon as possible" of all the research data that does not contain what he described as confidential commercial information.
"One of the most important NASA principles is to ensure the dissemination of research results to the widest practical and appropriate extent," Griffin wrote.
In an odd twist, Griffin raised doubts in his testimony about the reliability of his own agency's research by telling lawmakers that NASA does not consider the survey's methodology or data to have been sufficiently verified.
Griffin also expressed regret over NASA's assertion that revealing the survey findings could damage the public's confidence in airlines and affect airline profits. NASA cited those reasons in refusing to turn over the survey data to the AP, which sought the information over 14 months under the Freedom of Information Act. Griffin has directed his agency to reconsider its denial of the data to the AP.
"I regret any impression that NASA was in any way trying to put commercial interests ahead of public safety," Griffin wrote. "That was not and never will be the case."
On Tuesday, Griffin bowed to a request from the lawmakers and sent copies of the raw data -- contained on four CDs -- to the House Science and Technology Committee.
Officials who have worked on the survey have said it contains no pilot names or airline names. The questionnaire asked pilots to state how many times in the previous 60 days they had encountered a wide range of problems with equipment, weather, tower communication and other safety issues.
NASA's efforts to withhold the safety research sparked tough criticism on Capitol Hill and in the editorial pages of dozens of leading newspapers -- including USA Today, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune -- which urged the agency to release its research. The Times described NASA's reasons for withholding the information as "lame excuses."
Griffin also has sought to assure lawmakers that NASA will not destroy the research. Earlier this month, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to return any project information, then purge all related data from its computers. Griffin said that was according to the contract NASA had with the company, but that he has rescinded those instructions.
Although to most people NASA is associated with spaceflight, the agency has a long history of aviation safety research. Its experts study atmospheric science and airplane materials and design, among other areas.
The survey project, called the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service, was launched after a White House commission in the late 1990s called for government efforts to significantly reduce fatal aircraft accidents.
Anyone know if this information was ever released by NASA? I haven't seen it?
Ok, this is what I found regarding this report:
Lawmakers hit NASA air safety report
Monday, January 14, 2008By SHELBY G. SPIRESTimes Aerospace Writer email@example.com
Details omittedon near-collisionsand tired pilots
NASA owes the tax-paying public and more than 90 million annual airline passengers more than a blanked-out air safety report released during the distracting holiday season, say Alabama lawmakers and a Huntsville aerospace expert.
The report raised concerns last year because it contained information about near-collisions, tired pilots, and frequent bird strikes by commercial airliners.
NASA managers plan to give space agency head Mike Griffin an updated plan today on how
to go about clearing more information for public release, but that process could take many months, a NASA spokesman said Friday.
A 16,208-page, $11.3 million federal air safety report was released by NASA on New Year's Eve, but it offered only scant listings of the details collected over years of interviews with more than 25,000 commercial pilots and some 4,000 private pilots. The data was collected as part of a National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service survey overseen by NASA.
Critics in Congress and the public have spoken out against NASA for redacting the air travel information.
"NASA is an open agency and, to the fullest extent possible, we try to release information," said J.D. Harrington, an aeronautics spokesman for NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. "There's no rush on this, because we want to do it properly."
U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, wants the full report released to the public and he chided NASA officials for not releasing it in a way people could understand.
"It took three years to compile the data and then another three years to publicly release it - in the form of a cumbersome and heavily redacted report." Shelby said in a statement to The Times. "If the NASA report was worth spending millions of dollars on, don't the taxpayers who paid for it deserve to see the results?"
Harrington said the initial release was the first phase in a complicated process. The information was blanked out "to protect the anonymity of the pilots and to protect commercial interests, but the team reviewing the first phase of the release did not have enough time to review each document individually," he said.
A computer program was used to sift through and blank out items on more than 16,000 pages, Harrington said.
"It was a search-and-replace type process. For instance, references to 747 would have been changed to 'wide-bodied jet,' and some terms would just be" blanked, Harrington said.
Over the next several months, the team will look at each record individually and make judgments, Harrington said. 'They've had 3 years'
Huntsville lawyer and space expert Mark McDaniel said NASA has taken years to review this information and "shouldn't be delaying this release at all. They've had three years to make these judgments."
McDaniel said the more than 1.1 million people who come through Huntsville International Airport every year deserve to know "any and all safety information collected by NASA. This isn't a matter of national security or part of an intelligence operation. This report should be released in full."
"There isn't a person who isn't affected by this. Even if a person has never flown before, they know somebody who has. At the very least, an aircraft flies over somebody's home or place of work at some point during the day."
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates more than 90 million Americans fly every year and, according to a NASA environmental study, more than 24,000 passenger jets criss-cross American skies daily.
At Huntsville International Airport, about 85 passenger, military and cargo aircraft take off and land daily, according to figures provided by the Huntsville-Madison County Airport Authority.
A member of the airport authority, McDaniel also challenged NASA to go one step further "than just putting the report out there."
"The first 'A' in NASA is for aeronautics," he said. "The agency should provide experts to expound, interpret this data. Of course, news agencies can speak to their own experts, but NASA should provide people to interpret this data also."
Initially, NASA managers refused to release the report, but relented after being criticized by Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., chairman of the House Science Committee.
Gordon has made it clear in statements on the floor of Congress and to the public that he will seek hearings in Congress on the subject this year, a move supported by U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville.
"The public should have the opportunity to know the contents of the airline safety report conducted by NASA," Cramer said. "(Last) fall, House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon asked Administrator Griffin to release all of the data he collected through the survey. I encourage Administrator Griffin to follow through with his initial pledge to provide the complete data to the committee."
Results that were included in the report served only to provoke further questions about how safe it is to fly, said McDaniel.
1,266 close calls listed
According to The Associated Press, the results from commercial pilots interviewed for the report appeared to reflect in part at least 1,266 incidents in which aircraft flew within 500 feet of each other, at least 1,312 cases where pilots suddenly dropped or climbed inadvertently more than 300 feet in flight, and 166 reports of pilots landing without clearance at an airport with an active control tower.
The data also reflected 513 reports of hard landings and 4,267 cases of aircraft hitting birds.
The report was based on interviews with about 8,000 pilots a year from 2001 until the end of 2004. Griffin said on New Year's Eve the survey was poorly managed.
"It's hard for me ... to see any data here that the traveling public would care about or ought to care about," Griffin told reporters.
McDaniel said the space agency cannot be flippant or judgmental about air safety.
"That's an arrogant way to proceed with this," said McDaniel, who advises members of Congress on aerospace and science issues. "It's a civil agency that's responsible to the American people."
The Associated Presscontributed to this report.
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