NASA Releases Cryptic Airline Safety Study

NASA on Monday dumped 29,000 lines of raw data onto the Internet to fulfill a promise to release information about the safety of air travel. NASA declined to say what the data meant, but previously, the space agency had refused to release the information at all because it feared scaring the public and hurting the aviation industry.

The Associated Press first asked for the data under a Freedom of Information Act Request, but NASA's response about scaring the public was so startling, Administrator Michael Griffin was called before Congress to explain. At that hearing on Halloween, Griffin acknowledged that NASA's rationale for holding back the data was wrong, and he promised to release the data by the end of the year.

On Monday, he complied — with a data set that has been broken down into long columns, mostly zeroes, stripped of information that could put it into a real context. Griffin told reporters on a conference call that the data aren't just ugly — he doesn't believe them. For example, he said it would appear that jet aircraft engines fail at four times the reported rate, according to NASA's survey of 24,000 pilots.

So what to make of the data? Griffin says, as a pilot and an airline passenger himself, he doesn't see anything there.

That's quite a turnabout from what NASA said when it first refused to release the data. Griffin's explanation now is that, while the space agency spent $11 million to amass the data over four years, it never intended to analyze it.

Stanford University professor Jon Krosnick says the data that appeared on the NASA Web site Monday is useless in its current form, because anybody who tries to interpret it will come to absurd conclusions. He says NASA analyzed the data incorrectly.

What the report says about air safety at the moment is pretty much nothing. Fortunately, there is a way out of this morass. Under guidance from Congress, NASA will ask the National Academy of Sciences to weigh in.

The Federal Aviation Administration currently relies on voluntary reporting of problems, not random surveys like the kind NASA attempted, so ultimately, what could come from this is a better way to identify problems in the air.

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