ALEX CHADWICK, host:
Now air travel in this country and air safety. In Washington yesterday afternoon NASA released 16, 000 pages of raw data collected in interviews with commercial airline pilots. In those pages are many, many complaints about overcrowded runways, undertrained pilots, and near misses.
Congress demanded that NASA release the information. But it comes without any analysis or conclusions, no recommendations, no clear indication whether the nation's air traffic system is more or less safe than we might think.
Here to explain, or try anyway, is reporter Matthew Wald of the New York Times. Matt, welcome to DAY TO DAY. And if I could just start here...
Mr. MATTHEW WALD (New York Times): Yes?
CHADWICK: Why is this report coming from NASA, the space agency, rather than the FAA - the Federal Aviation Administration?
Mr. WALD: Well, Alex, people forget it's the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This is the aeronautics part. NASA, in fact, has always had a role in civilian aviation safety - in research, not regulation.
CHADWICK: Okay. Well, this survey involved interviews with 24,000 pilots. It cost $11 million. The interviews were conducted a few years ago. At first NASA says the results would not be released because they might upset people who fly, and also the airlines. Tell us what you can about what's in these pages, and is there information that indicates there are serious safety problems with our air traffic system?
Mr. WALD: Well, that is a matter of debate. It's 24,000 interviews. They went back to some pilots over and over. And they did it with a social science background - people who are experts in polling did a few questions up front, saw how those questions played, refined the questions, and then turned it loose on a very large body of pilots for several years.
And they thought if they went back and analyzed these, they could find common areas of concern that might indicate what they call precursors - little factors that by themselves are not dangerous but might come together to form an accident. But they never got to the analysis stage. They also never got to the stage of asking other people important to safety like mechanics, flight attendants, et cetera.
NASA said that this was taking too long and that the methodology wasn't tested, wasn't good, and gave up on it. I think some of this is a conflict between NASA, the engineers, and the social scientists they hired. But in any case, what they have now is a large mass of raw data that NASA says isn't terrifically useful. And the people who designed it say sure it is, go in and analyze it.
CHADWICK: Well, there was this briefing yesterday in Washington where the NASA administrator Michael Griffin said that this information really wasn't so important. Here he is speaking with reporters at a teleconference. I think you were there for this. Here he is.
Mr. MICHAEL GRIFFIN (NASA): It's hard for me to see any data here that the traveling public would care about or ought to care about. But it's also not for me to prescribe what others may care about.
CHADWICK: So there is the guy who runs the agency that collected all this data. Listening to Mr. Griffin, what were you thinking?
Mr. WALD: He's washing his hands. And also, he's losing his temper. He was asked that question about three or four times and got a little more emphatic and annoyed every time he was asked. He kept saying there's nothing here, folks.
CHADWICK: Do you personally, as an air traveler, having looked at this data, having covered the industry, do you think that there is something in here that should worry people who fly?
Mr. WALD: I wasn't able to glean anything from this data. I think smarter people than me may be able to. I think that this industry is pretty safe. I mean, I go to just about every crash. I've been going to them for a long time and there haven't been a lot of them lately. I think that there might be indications in this data that some underlying problems are more common than we believe they are. And it would be useful to figure out if that's so. And that would be an additional opportunity to find small areas of risk and get them out of the system. A lot of the risk has already been driven out of the system, which is why the accidental rate in the last 10 years has declined by about 65 percent.
CHADWICK: Reporter Matthew Wald of the New York Times. Matt, thank you and Happy New Year.
Mr. WALD: Happy New Year, Alex.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.