NASA should clean on air safety

Hazel Abernathy
November 12, 2007
Homer Watts, Jr.
November 14, 2007

NASA has dropped its indefensible efforts to keep aviation safety data secret and now says it will release the results of a survey that interviewed thousands of pilots over four years.

That’s the right decision, but it’s a shame that it took pressure from the media and Congress to make the agency change its position.

NASA launched the survey in response to a White House commission in the late 1990s that called for efforts to reduce fatal aviation accidents. The project involved interviewing more than 20,000 pilots over a four-year period to ask how many times in the previous 60 days they had experienced problems with weather, equipment, communications with air traffic control and a broad range of other safety matters.

Asking pilots about their experiences was a good idea, and the picture of aviation safety that emerged from this survey is far more worrisome than that portrayed by other government monitoring programs.

Pilots reported far more near-collisions, runway interference, bird strikes and other safety issues.

That’s worth knowing, but NASA refused to turn over survey data to the Associated Press, saying that it could shake public confidence in air safety and hurt airlines financially.

NASA’s job is not to shield the airline industry from bad publicity. NASA administrator Michael Griffin now says that he regrets “any impression that NASA was or would in any way try to put commercial interests ahead of public safety.”

But it’s hard to see NASA’s initial position any other way. Even now, Mr. Griffin says that the agency will have to analyze the survey.

He questioned the reliability of the survey’s methodology and data. But experts who worked on the project say it was a state-of-the-art survey.

At this point, NASA’s credibility on this matter is thin. The agency should perform its analysis quickly and honor its promise to produce the results of the survey.