Congress Directs Investigators to Analyze NASA Air Safety Data

February 8, 2008

The public may yet learn what thousands of pilots told NASA about air safety. Congress moved this week to analyze data from a project that the space agency cast aside and then withheld results in fear they could alarm the public and hurt airline profits.

The House Science and Technology Committee told the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office, to use its statistical, aviation and survey experts to analyze NASA’s more than 24,000 telephone interviews with pilots.

Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., called the effort a high priority for Congress and the flying public.

“When the public pays for five years of government work designed to help us improve flying safety, I think the public deserves to get a report back on what was learned. NASA won’t do the work, so I am asking the GAO to bring back some answers to the committee that we can then share with the country,” Gordon said in a statement.

One goal will be to see how rates of events reported by the pilots compare to information collected in other ways by the Federal Aviation Administration.

NASA interviewed the pilots about dozens of safety incidents, including equipment failure and near collisions, that they encounter. The idea was to help identify precursors to accidents. The survey had an 80 percent response rate from the randomly contacted pilots.

NASA scuttled the survey and in 2006 closed the $11.3 million project, known as the National Aviation Operations Monitoring System. After The Associated Press reported in October that NASA was refusing to disclose results on grounds it might upset air travelers, Gordon’s committee demanded the raw data.

Under congressional pressure, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin released on New Year’s Eve a partial online version of the data, thousands of pages scrambled to make sure no one could figure out how to identify the unnamed pilots. They had been promised anonymity. The redactions made that information “almost worthless for analysis,” Gordon said.

Griffin has belittled the quality of the survey while experts who worked on it and NASA union representatives have described it as state of the art. NASA’s inspector general is conducting an audit of the program’s management.

The FAA has questioned the project’s results showing more safety incidents than the FAA’s own data, saying it reflected pilots’ subjective opinions.

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