NASA Airline Safety Survey Beset with Controversy

November 09, 2007 12:33 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The four-year long survey suggests fatigue-inspired mistakes, near collisions and runway interference are more common than previously thought, but NASA’s top official doubts the data’s validity.

30-Second Summary

Reports first surfaced about NASA’s aviation safety review on Oct. 22, after the agency denied a Freedom of Information Act request for the data made by the Associated Press.

In a letter to the AP, NASA Associate Administrator Thomas S. Luedtke claimed that the disclosure “could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers.”

This reasoning quickly drew ire from lawmakers and the media, resulting in a congressional hearing on Oct. 31.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told the House Committee on Science and Technology that he disagreed with Luedtke’s initial rationale, pledging that his agency would make the survey public within the year.

Griffin also raised doubts about the reliability of the $11.3 million, tax-payer funded survey: “There may be reason to question the validity of the methodology.”

Griffin’s misgivings are supported by an opinion piece in New Scientist magazine, which states, “NASA appears to have counted some incidents more than once. Pilots were given anonymity, so NASA can't tell when several reports of an incident refer to the same event.”

Robert Dodd, the space agency’s former head of the research project, denied Griffin’s allegations. He told lawmakers that the survey was based on outstanding science, and that NASA’s justifications for withholding the data were “without merit.”

Although the survey comes during one of the safest periods in air travel history—the last fatal crash in the United States was the 2001 Comair 5191—it may be a while before air travelers learn whether flying is more dangerous than they previously thought.

Nonetheless, NASA’s inspector general announced on Nov. 7 that it is auditing the handling of the survey to determine whether, as Rep. Ben Chandler (D-KY) put it during the Oct. 31 hearing, “we've just thrown $11 million down a rat hole.”

Headline Links: NASA audits survey and pilots fall asleep at the wheel

Background: The congressional hearing and the survey in the press

The congressional hearing
The survey in the press

Opinion & Analysis: Does lax methodology invalidate NASA’s survey?

Related Topics: Air controllers retire in record numbers

Reference Material: Accident statistics and the evolution of aviation safety


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