NASA Study Raises Concerns About Air Safety

The study found that serious safety problems with air travel — such as near collisions and runway interference — occur far more often than was previously recognized. NASA didn't initially release the results to the public, for fear that the findings would alarm passengers and harm airline profits.

Following intense public pressure, NASA administrator Michael Griffin pledged to release the study after it had been scrubbed clean of data that could identify specific pilots.

Congressman Mark Udall (D-CO), chair of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee House Committee on Science and Technology, talks about Griffin's testimony.

NASA Chief Agrees to Release Aviation Survey

NASA's administrator promised on Wednesday to reveal the results of an aviation survey that found near collisions, runway interference and other safety problems occur far more often than previously believed.

Michael Griffin told a congressional panel the agency would first delete information that would make it possible to identify any of the 24,000 pilots who were interviewed. He also said NASA would release only data that do not contain what he described as confidential commercial information.

"The survey results we can legally release will be released, period," he said. He estimated that redacting the identifiers would take until the end of the year, although a survey expert told Congress it could be done in a week.

NASA officials have refused for more than a year to release the results of the survey, saying it would upset air travelers and hurt airline profits.

That response brought criticism from lawmakers and the man who headed the research project for NASA.

"I don't believe that the ... data contained any information that could compare with the image of a crashed air carrier airplane or would increase passengers' fear of flying," said Robert Dodd, NASA's former head of the research project.

Griffin was apologetic. "We did say that. That was the wrong thing to have said," Griffin admitted to the panel. "I apologize. ... People make mistakes. This was a mistake."

But NASA's administrator raised doubts about the reliability of his own agency's research, telling lawmakers that NASA does not consider the survey's methodology or data to have been sufficiently verified.

Griffin said the project showed many types of safety problems occurred more frequently than were reported by other U.S. government monitoring programs. He cautioned that the data was never validated and warned, "There may be reason to question the validity of the methodology."

"What I'm hearing you say is, we've just thrown $11 million down a rat hole," said Rep. Ben Chandler (D-KY), referring to the survey's price tag.

Experts who worked on the study — including Dodd — disputed Griffin's remarks.

Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who helped create the survey questions, said the research adhered to the highest standards.

Krosnick told Congress that aviation experts from NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, and the White House Office of Management and Budget and other groups reviewed the research plans.

Dodd told lawmakers the survey was based on outstanding science, extensively tested and ready for meaningful analysis. Dodd said NASA's earlier explanations for withholding the information were "without merit."

NASA conducted the study as part of a project launched in the late 1990's to reduce the number of fatal aviation accidents.

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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