Black Hole

Monday, January 7, 2008

WE'RE USUALLY thrilled when a public official makes good on a promise to release data that are pertinent to public safety. But Michael Griffin, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, gets no kudos for his New Year's Eve release of 16,208 pages of data collected over four years from 29,000 pilots of commercial jets and private planes.

The unprecedented telephone survey, which began in 2001 and ended in 2004 and had an 80 percent response rate, was called the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service. The $11.5 million program got pilots to talk about things that would scare the living daylights out of air travelers -- subjects such as falling asleep on the flight deck, difficulties communicating with the control tower in busy airspace, engine failure and near-collisions. The Associated Press tried for 14 months without success to get the data released 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," wrote NASA associate administrator Thomas S. Luedtke.

That rationale was beyond unacceptable. Mr. Griffin was right to reverse course and promise Congress that the data would be released by the end of the year. Who knew he would do it in such a snit?

"We were asked to release the data, and I said that we would, and we have done that," Mr. Griffin said during a testy conference call with reporters on New Year's Eve. Problem is, the data dumped onto the NASA Web site were heavily censored and disaggregated to the point of being of little use to anyone. Keeping the pilots' identities and proprietary commercial information confidential is understandable, as is Mr. Griffin's argument that NASA was never supposed to analyze the data but to develop "methodologies for collecting aviation safety data." What is incomprehensible is how NASA could collect so much information and not try to put it in some form that might be useful to the public. Even the Stanford University expert who helped the agency create the survey recognized that the "little things" it revealed would be worth knowing to prevent accidents.

Mr. Griffin was not convinced during his call with reporters. "It is hard for me to see any data here that the traveling public would care about or ought to care about," he said. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, is urging release of more data as soon as possible, and committee staffers told us that they are seeking a statistics-capable outfit (such as the National Academy of Sciences or the Government Accountability Office) to analyze the information. Maybe then we'll see if Mr. Griffin's devil-may-care attitude was warranted.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company