Feds keep pilot survey under wraps
October 22, 2007
An unprecedented national survey of pilots by the U.S. government has found that safety problems like near collisions and runway interference occur far more frequently than previously recognized. But the government is withholding the information, fearful it would upset air 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 one year ago, the space agency has refused to divulge its survey data publicly.
After The Associated Press disclosed details Monday about the survey and efforts to keep its results secret, NASA’s chief said he will reconsider how much of the survey findings can be made public.
“NASA should focus on how we can provide information to the public, not on how we can withhold it,” NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said in a statement. He said the agency’s research and data “should be widely available and subject to review and scrutiny.”
Last week, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to purge all related data from its computers. Congress on Monday announced a formal investigation of the pilot survey and instructed NASA to halt any destruction of records. Griffin said he already was ordering that all survey data be preserved.
The AP learned about the NASA results from one person familiar with the survey who spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to discuss them.
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A senior NASA official, associate administrator Thomas S. Luedtke, said earlier that revealing the findings could damage the public’s confidence in airlines and affect airline profits. Luedtke acknowledged that the survey results “present a comprehensive picture of certain aspects of the U.S. commercial aviation industry.”
The AP sought to obtain the survey data over 14 months under the U.S. 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,” Luedtke wrote in a final denial letter to the AP. NASA also cited pilot confidentiality as a reason, although no airlines were identified in the survey, nor were the identities of pilots, all of whom were promised anonymity.
Griffin said NASA will reconsider its denial for the data to the AP.
Among other results, the 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 who was not authorized to discuss them publicly.
The survey also revealed higher-than-expected numbers of pilots who experienced “in-close approach changes” ” potentially dangerous, last-minute instructions to alter landing plans.
Officials at the NASA Ames Research Center in California have said they want to publish their own report on the project by year’s end.
Although to most people NASA is associated with spaceflight, the agency has a long and storied history of aviation safety research. Its experts study atmospheric science and airplane materials and design, among other areas.
“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.”
Discussing NASA’s decision not to release the survey data, Miller said: “There is a faint odor about it all.”
Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., wrote to NASA on Monday announcing an investigation by the House Science and Technology committee which he chairs, and directing the agency not to destroy documents. The letter instructed NASA to provide Congress results and background on the survey and any communications from airlines about how the data might harm them.
“I cannot imagine any good public purpose being served by destroying records,” Gordon said in a statement. “The committee will get to the bottom of all of this.”
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 send astronauts to the moon and Mars.
NASA said nothing it discovered in the survey warranted notifying the Federal Aviation Administration immediately and data showed improvements in some areas. Survey managers occasionally briefed the FAA. At a 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 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.
In its space program, NASA has a deadly history of playing down safety issues. Investigators blamed the 1986 and 2003 shuttle disasters on poor decision making, budget cuts and improperly minimizing risks. NASA decided to go ahead with a 2006 shuttle launch and is moving ahead with one this week despite safety concerns by NASA engineers in both cases.
Aviation experts said NASA’s pilot survey results could be a valuable resource in an industry where 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. “If their intent is to just let it sit there, that’s just a waste.”
Officials involved in the survey touted the unusually high response rate among pilots, 80 percent, and said they believe it is 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.
“I don’t believe it’s in NASA’s purpose and mission statement to protect the underlying financial fortunes of the airlines,” David Stempler, president of the Potomac, Md.-based Air Travelers Association, said Monday. “They’re to provide safety information, and the consequences will fall where they may. We still believe this is an extremely safe air travel system, but it could be made even safer.”
NASA’s 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 had begun to interview general aviation pilots and initially planned to interview flight attendants, air traffic controllers and mechanics before the survey was halted.
In earlier interviews that helped researchers design the NASA survey, pilots said airlines were unaware how frequently safety incidents occurred that could lead to serious problems or even crashes, said Jon Krosnick, a survey expert at Stanford University who helped NASA create the questionnaire. Krosnick also led a Stanford team that paid for a joint AP-Stanford poll on the environment.
“There are little things going on everyday that rarely lead to an accident but they increase the chances of an accident,” said Krosnick. “It’s the little things beneath the surface that cause the very infrequent crashes. You have to tackle those.”
NASA had directed its contractor Battelle Memorial Institute, along with subcontractors, on Thursday to return any project information and then purge it from their computers before Oct. 30.