Critics Assail NASA's Refusal to Release Air Safety Survey

By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Members of Congress and aviation safety experts yesterday criticized NASA's refusal to release the results from an extensive survey of pilots that may help pinpoint potential safety lapses in the country's aviation network.

The reaction came in response to attempts by the Associated Press to obtain a copy of the database, which contains the results of more than 20,000 telephone interviews with airline and general aviation pilots. It is not known what the surveys uncovered.

NASA officials told the AP, which reported that it requested the database more than 14 months ago, that they would not release the information because it might shake the public's confidence in the airlines.

Members of Congress said that was not a valid reason to withhold the information and announced yesterday that they were also seeking a copy of the database and would hold hearings on the matter.

"This is like a drug manufacturer finding out through trials that there are problems with a drug and not making the public aware because they don't want to reduce the sales of the drug or scare the public," said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Science and Technology Committee. "It could be enormously helpful in a wide range of areas in trying to understand mishaps."

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin issued a statement yesterday saying he had just learned of his agency's denial of the data request and was reviewing it "to determine what, if any, of this information may legally be made public."

David Mould, a NASA spokesman, said the data were still being analyzed and that he expected a final report on the project to be released this year. He conceded that it was behind schedule and said that denying the request on the grounds that it might scare the public "was probably not the best thing to do."

The database cost about $8.5 million to compile.

Researchers began calling thousands of pilots about their experiences in 2000 and stopped collecting the information in 2005. They gleaned information from at least 20,000 questionnaires. They were prepared to conduct surveys with flight attendants, ground workers and controllers but halted the work because funding ran short, according to members of Congress. Mould said the program stopped gathering data because the program's goals had been accomplished.

Although known for its space program, NASA also works on aviation issues and has conducted research in the field since its inception.

The AP reported that the database revealed twice as many bird strikes, runway incursions and near-collisions in midair as other government data have shown. However, sources familiar with the database cautioned that no substantial safety problems were uncovered. Those would have been immediately reported to the Federal Aviation Administration, they said.

The controversy comes as U.S. commercial aviation is enjoying its safest period on record. In the past, regulators and those in the industry corrected problems by studying what led to past crashes.

With so few accidents in the United States in recent years, however, regulators and the industry have been trying to find other ways to identify potentially dangerous trends. There has been only one major commercial jet crash with passenger fatalities in the United States since 2001.

NASA already has a public database of reports on safety-related incidents filed anonymously by pilots, controllers and others in the aviation field. Regulators and the airlines draw upon other databases that contain information reported by crews and their data recorders.

In light of the search for such trends, safety experts said they could not understand why NASA would not release the information or have analyzed it more quickly. They said those decisions raised questions about the agency's safety culture, which was assailed after the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated in 2003.

"The reason we have advanced aviation safety to such a degree in this country is because we have an open system," said Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "It's the worst type of policy to try to hide something from the people it is intended to serve."

Representatives of the air traffic controllers union said they want the database released to the public and were concerned that controllers were not able to participate in the survey.

John Prater, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, said he was disappointed that funding for the program ran out and wanted the data to be extensively analyzed.

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