Redacted Air-Traffic Safety Survey Released

Pilots were polled about incidents such as engine failures, bird strikes, fires onboard planes and encounters with severe turbulence.
Pilots were polled about incidents such as engine failures, bird strikes, fires onboard planes and encounters with severe turbulence. (By Paul Sancya -- Associated Press)
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By Del Quentin Wilber
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 1, 2008

NASA yesterday released partial results of a massive air-safety survey of airline pilots who repeatedly complained about fatigue, problems with air-traffic controllers, airport security, and the layouts of runways and taxiways.

Reacting to criticism about its initial decision to withhold the database for fear of harming airlines' bottom lines, NASA released a heavily redacted version of the survey on its Web site yesterday afternoon. But the space and aeronautics agency published the information in a way that made it difficult to analyze.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told reporters in a conference call that the agency had no plans to study the database for trends. He said NASA conducted the survey only to determine whether gathering information from pilots in such a way was worthwhile.

Despite the lack of analysis by NASA scientists, Griffin said there was nothing in the database that should concern air travelers. "It's hard for me to see any data the traveling public would care about or ought to care about," he said. "We were asked to release the data, and we did."

The NASA database, which included more than 10,000 pages of information, was based on extensive telephone polling of airline and general aviation pilots about incidents ranging from engine failures and bird strikes to fires onboard planes and encounters with severe turbulence. The survey cost about $11 million and was conducted from 2001 to 2004.

The survey included narrative responses by pilots, but NASA released the information in such a way as to make it impossible to determine details of what the pilots were describing. The narratives sometimes included terse answers such as "fatigue" and "crew rest."

Others were slightly more extensive.

"Pilots asleep on flight deck is a problem," one pilot said. Another suggested that survey workers ask pilots how often they fall asleep in the cockpit.

The reports included discussions of pilots' difficulties in talking to controllers in busy airspace. Air traffic control "capacity inadequate to handle traffic load," one pilot reported.

"There are too many people on the frequency, and they are causing a safety problem," another pilot responded.

NASA had refused to release the data several months ago in response to a request by the Associated Press, saying publication might affect the public's confidence in the airlines. NASA was roundly criticized by members of Congress and aviation safety experts for refusing to publish the survey.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said yesterday that the agency should not have redacted so much of the data nor released it in a format that made it difficult to analyze. He promised more hearings into the matter.

"It was just an effort to get something out the door rather than a serious effort to provide transparency," Gordon said. "It was heavily redacted, and there is not much usefulness to the data until we get more information."

Jim Hall, a former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, also criticized the way NASA released its database. "When a government agency is not transparent with the American people, particularly on an issue like safety, they are not fulfilling their responsibilities and earning their pay," Hall said.

The debate over the database comes as U.S. commercial aviation is enjoying its safest period in history, according to Federal Aviation Administration officials. The last major fatal U.S. air crash occurred in August 2006.

FAA officials said they had no plans to launch an independent study of the survey. But the FAA is looking at ways to "integrate the data with the existing data we have," said Laura Brown, an FAA spokeswoman.

Outside safety experts said analyzing the database could provide helpful clues that might prevent a crash. "I hope that somebody will have the initiative to crunch the data and be able to put together trends," said John Cox, a former investigator with the Air Line Pilots Association, a major pilots union.

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