Pilot survey on safety: Should it be public?

Congress holds hearings on secret NASA data that reportedly found more problems than the FAA did.

Air travel is safer than it's ever been, says the Federal Aviation Administration, pointing to a record-low number of crashes.

Or is that really the case?

A secret survey of pilots done by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has reportedly found twice as many potentially disastrous mishaps – such as runway near misses, bird strikes, and dangerously close encounters in the sky – than the FAA statistics show.

But NASA has refused to release the data, even though the information was discovered by the Associated Press and reported last week. That has prompted a firestorm of criticism and charges that NASA undermined the perceived safety of the US aviation system.

On Wednesday, a congressional committee will call NASA on the carpet and demand an explanation. Lawmakers want to know whether the NASA survey indicates that the skies are really more dangerous than the FAA data indicate.

If they are, Congress wants to know if there is a serious problem with the FAA's method of collecting safety data that needs to be resolved.

Finally, Congress wants the answer to the question of whether this whole incident is nothing more than a tempest in a teapot created by NASA's decision to try to keep the survey secret. Many aviation experts say that a public explanation could have easily clarified the difference in the reported problems.

"I can't understand why anyone at NASA would try to suppress this kind of information," says Clint Oster, an aviation expert at Indiana University at Bloomington. "I have absolutely no increase in anxiety about flying as a result of this. NASA has simply mishandled a project they were doing."

The Associated Press spent more than a year trying to get access to the survey results, which were part of an $8.5 million project that interviewed more than 24,000 pilots during four years ending in 2005. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, NASA turned down the AP's request in September, stating the survey data was "sensitive and safety-related, [and] 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."

The AP report was based on interviews with sources who were familiar with the NASA survey.

NASA reportedly ordered the contractor it worked with on the survey to return all information and purge its files. When Congress learned of that from the AP, a harsh response followed. The House Committee on Science and Technology last week ordered NASA to halt any destruction of documents related to the survey, noting in an Oct. 22nd letter that it was a "violation of criminal law" to dispose of requested documents.

That prompted some backtracking on the part of NASA. Administrator Michael Griffin ordered a senior official to go over the survey data and determine "as soon as possible" whether any of it could be released.

"NASA should focus on how we can provide information to the public – not on how we can withhold it," he said in a statement. He also regretted the language used in the initial denial, saying that it gave the impression that NASA put commercial interest before public safety. "That was not and will never be the case," the statement said.

NASA says its primary reason for withholding the survey was to protect the privacy of pilots they'd interviewed.

"We told these pilots that took part in this, 24,000 of them or so, that they would be doing this anonymously," says a NASA official, who asked not to be named. "If we gave this data out, it would harm our ability to do these kinds of surveys in the future."

But the survey has already been stripped of the names of the participating pilots and their airlines. Still, this NASA official says it would be possible to identify them. "If a pilot made a remark like, 'I flew out of Logan to San Francisco on such and such a date and such and such an event happened,' there aren't that many airlines that fly that route," he says.

Aviation experts like Professor Oster say such an explanation doesn't hold water, primarily because both NASA and the FAA currently keep such incident data and make it public. "You can get this data anyway," Oster says.

The FAA, which was briefed on the survey and its results several years ago, dismisses the results, noting that the information is now old. They say their current system for tracking potential problems works just fine.

"The proof that our efforts are working are right there in the historically low accident rate and in the fact that the commercial fatal accident rate was reduced by 65 percent over the last 10 years," says FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

Even so, aviation analysts say the information could still be very valuable to the FAA.

"As a regulator of safety, the FAA should not be looking back [and pointing to its safety record,]" says Kevin Mitchell, chairman of the Business Travel Coalition, which represents business travelers. "It should be looking forward and always trying to improve its processes."

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