NASA can shoot people into space, but it’s not shooting straight with millions of Americans who fly closer to home.
How else to explain the space agency’s refusal to release data that suggest safety problems in aviation occur far more often than previously known?
The unprecedented survey of about 24,000 commercial airline pilots and 5,000 general aviation pilots was completed in early 2005, but NASA refused to release the results. The uproar that followed could have been avoided.
For starters, those rocket scientists at NASA should hire a new publicist or two. The agency can handle news reports about lovesick astronauts, but they can’t write a press release explaining the survey and how it will be used to improve air safety.
When The Associated Press sought the results through the Freedom Of Information Act, NASA balked. “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 Thomas S. Luedtke, a senior NASA official.
That wasn’t the answer AP had hoped for, but at least Luedtke’s letter was grounded in truth: Public confidence in airlines not only could be affected by knowledge of serious safety problems, it should be affected so that improvements can be made.
What little we know of the results, thanks to an anonymous source, is alarming: Pilots reported at least twice as many bird strikes, near mid-air collisions and runway incursions than government figures show.
Unfortunately, Luedtke’s reward for stating the obvious was to be hung out to dry by his boss, NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin, in congressional testimony last week.
“I regret any impression that NASA was in any way trying to put commercial interests ahead of public safety,” Griffin said in his statement. “That was not and never will be the case.” The data soon will be released, Griffin said, along with a disclaimer that the results haven’t been verified. Heck, they could have done that months ago.
Griffin didn’t explain why NASA was surveying airline pilots instead of the Federal Aviation Administration, whose mission is to provide the “safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.” As part of that mission, the FAA runs a “voluntary, confidential and non-punitive” Aviation Safety Reporting System; based on NASA’s more comprehensive figures, “inaccurate” might be a better description.
We realize that statistics are complex and raw data sometimes give rise to false conclusions and sensational headlines. The snooty corollary to that principle is that people (including the media) are too dumb to comprehend the theory and practical uses of science. So we turn to Stanford professor Jon A. Krosnick, a former consultant to the project known as the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service.
“Airplanes’ ‘black boxes’ and other computers track what planes do physically, but they yield a colossally huge amount of data that can’t be analyzed quickly and inexpensively,” Krosnick wrote in a 2006 blog post explaining the NAOMS project. “And on-board computers can’t see lots of incidents that increase risks, especially incidents involving human behavior in the cockpit and air traffic control tower….”
Accordingly, “the (pilot) surveys are like canaries in a mine, documenting increases in particular types of risk and allowing air travel professionals to take preventive steps before catastrophes happen. Expanding the program’s mission to collect data on aircraft security might even help reduce the threat of terrorism,” wrote Krosnick, who also appeared before the House science committee last week to defend the project’s methodology.
Rather than expand the program as planned, however, NASA stopped the surveys and began crunching the data for “industry-government decision-makers.” NASA’s role, Griffin said, was limited to developing “advanced analysis algorithms” that the FAA can apply to safety data from multiple sources. Potentially, such groundwork could aid the Next Generation Air Transportation System (www.jpdo.gov), a bold yet bureaucratic initiative to improve air traffic flow and flight security using real-time computer and satellite technology.
Or, the data can sit on a shelf for another year or two while policy wonks figure out the best way to spin the conclusions to avoid angering folks in the airline industry. That approach is not just contrary to the scientific method; it’s indefensible when public safety is involved.
The taxpayers paid $11.3 million for this vital research; it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know taxpayers have every right to see it.