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 previously recognized. NASA didn't initially release the results to the public, for fear that the findings would alarm passengers and harm airline profits.
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NASA Study Raises Concerns About Air Safety

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NASA Study Raises Concerns About Air Safety

NASA Study Raises Concerns About Air Safety

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In the last few minutes we have left, a secret study on sky safety. Earlier this week, NASA administrator Michael Griffin appeared before Congress to talk about a secret survey one conducted with taxpayer money. Teams at NASA surveyed 24,000 airline pilots asking them about airline and private plane safety, about near misses in the sky and on the ground. And when all the data were collected, NASA decided that the survey should remain a secret. It seems they were afraid airline passengers might be so upset that they would refuse to fly and the statistics were so bad that it might poorly impact the whole industry.

Joining me now to talk about this survey and Griffin's testimony is Congressman Mark Udall, Democrat from California. He's chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee - I'm sorry a Democrat from Colorado. He's chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology.

Thank you, congressman.

Representative MARK UDALL (Democrat, Colorado: Chairman, Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee): Hey, Ira, it's a real honor to be on with you. Thanks for inviting me.

FLATOW: Are you - do you - are you going to force this out of the NASA, the results of the survey?

Rep. UDALL: The administrator, Dr. Griffin, acknowledged that he had made some mistakes in the handling of this information and he's committed to releasing all of it. Many of us think not soon enough, by that, I mean, he agreed to release it by the end of the year, we think it could be done in a week or two. But the important thing is that it will be released.

He did make the case that we need to redact some of the names and some of the airplanes and some of the places. But let's get it out. We've got a strong enough system that the information will help us make it even stronger. But to - as you talk to bury it, to actually destroy it would counter - work directly against the reason to have this study in the first place.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Talking about airline safety on TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

Congressman, it seems like from what we hear from the reports and the original admissions by NASA that they were - this was a very upsetting news to everybody.

Rep. UDALL: It was and again, Dr. Griffin juggles a lot of balls and he heads a very important agency, and has done a lot of wonderful and important work. But on this particular account, we're all disappointed. I'm particularly disappointed that it was mishandled. And that was the purpose of the hearing this week. And Dr. Griffin did respond by saying, we're going to get all of these information out. We're going to continue to push to get it out as soon as possible.

FLATOW: One of the reasons that they cited was that there were - the names of pilots, the names of people who weren't - did not know that their names will be released to the public and they wanted to get rid of those names, right?

Rep. UDALL: That's right. And yet we've been able to identify by those - with the help of those who understand the programs that are used, the computer programs, it would be very simple to redact all these information and push it out into the public domain, which then after all, we can use it to make air travel even more safe.

FLATOW: Have you read the report yourself?

Rep. UDALL: I have not. I do have it in hand and certainly will look at a summary of it, I've got a great staff team that'll go over it in detail so that we don't miss anything.

FLATOW: Do you foresee that if the report is as damning to the airline industry as it seems to be that you might be holding hearings on it?

Rep. UDALL: Yeah, that's - on Thursday when the hearing was held, I made it clear that our subcommittee may well air on the side of holding additional hearings because we want to look at the information (audio gap) consider how we would move, and then make sure the flying public is assured that we're doing everything possible.

FLATOW: Why was this study commissioned to begin with?

Rep. UDALL: Well, interestingly enough, (audio gap) the work that NASA already does, and the idea - this was the ASRS surveys and that dates back to the mid '70s. And NASA has, interestingly enough, been in a long time involved with aviation safety. And the idea was to do this in a different way, in the way the information was collected, but to compliment the ASRS surveys of the past. And NASA didn't make a very powerful case that they just wanted to build a new methodology and that the data collected wasn't important. And that's where they said there were going to shelve and then destroy this information. Of course, once it was discovered - this was their approach - the outcry changed what they're going to do now.

FLATOW: Sure, I mean, they did it with public money. We own the data, don't we?

Rep. UDALL: Yeah, it's an $11 million study. And again, it's not completely clear to me why this was so badly handled, but we did prevent NASA from destroying the information and now we can get it into the public domain and use it to create a more safe air transportation system.

FLATOW: If you don't get the report at a timely fashion that they promised, are you going to come back and ask why?

Rep. UDALL: You can count on it. That was - the real thrust from both Democrats and Republicans on the committee on Thursday was we're going to get to the bottom of this. And I - and actually, I should say the hearing was on Wednesday, to be accurate. But that we're going to broach no additional delay on this because it's just too important, now that people know the study was undertaken and yet is not available.

FLATOW: Congressman, I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

Rep. UDALL: Hey, thank you. You got a great show, and I look forward to perhaps joining you again in the future. We'll talk about aero space and the importance it holds to our future economic prospects, as well as just pushing the envelope.

FLATOW: Thank you very much, Congressman Mark Udall, a Democrat from Colorado, who's chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science and Technology.

That's about all the time we have today.

I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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