The House Science and Technology Committee plans to question NASA officials at an Oct. 30 hearing in an attempt to learn why the U.S. space agency refused to release the results of a multiyear survey of pilots that aviation experts said could help identify potential safety problems.
The hearing was scheduled after the Associated Press (AP) reported Oct. 22 that NASA was withholding the results of a survey of 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots conducted between 2001 and 2005 that found safety incidents, such as near mid-air collisions and bird strikes, occur far more frequently than
the government previously recognized.
The AP also reported that NASA had ordered the contractor who performed the survey –
Columbus, Ohio-based Battelle Memorial Institute –
all data related to the survey from their computers. The AP said it sought to obtain the survey results for more than 14 months under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), but that NASA denied the request citing concern that the data would undermine the public’s confidence in the airlines and discourage them from flying.
NASA Administrator Mike Griffin issued a statement several hours after the AP report appeared ordering his aeronautics chief to preserve all data from
, which was conducted on behalf of the U.S. space agency to gauge their view of aviation safety.
NASA spokesman David Mould told Space News the agency had not ordered the survey data destroyed, but said Battelle had been asked “to consolidate all the data instead of having it drib
s and drabs everywhere.”
Mould made available a copy of an Oct. 22 e-mail a Battelle project manager named Loren Rosenthal sent titled “Battle response to media,” which describes what actions the company had taken in regards to the survey data.
“The purpose of this email is to affirm, at NASA request, that NASA has never directed Battelle to destroy the master copies of NAOMS survey results data nor has Battelle taken such action,” Rosenthal wrote, adding that master copies of all survey results have been maintained by Battelle in Mountain View, Calif., and that CD copies of the data had been given to Ames Research Center, the NASA facility there.
Rosenthal’s e-mail also says that NASA had directed Battelle “to recover, or ensure the secure destruction, of any secondary copies of the [survey] data that might be held at locations outside of Mountain View.”
These locations, she said, include subcontractors on the now defunct safety project, and that the action was taken to comply with NASA data security requirements.
Griffin said in his Oct. 22 statement that he “had just been made aware of the issue” and would review the AP’s FOIA request “to determine what, if any, of this information may legally be made public.”
“NASA should focus on how we can provide information to the public –
not on how we can withhold it,” Griffin said in his statement. “Therefore, I am asking NASA’s Associate Administrator for Aeronautics Research, Lisa Porter, to look into this situation, including ensuring that all survey data are preserved, and report to me as soon as possible.”
also has been asked by Congress to share the survey data and other documents related to the aviation safety project.
Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), the chairman of the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee, wrote Griffin Oct. 19 about the issue, asking the agency to promptly turn over the requested information.
“The ‘safety and efficiency of aeronautical … vehicles’ is part of NASA’s mission; protecting airlines from public concern about safety is not,” Miller wrote in his letter.
The Business Travel Coalition and the International Airline Passengers’ Association (IAPA) jointly called on NASA to make the survey data public.
“Keeping important safety information secret will undermine the public’s confidence in the aviation system and represent a significant step back to a time when we largely only pursued safety improvements after an accident occurred,” Nancy McKinley, the IAPA’s director of consumer and industry affairs, said in a statement. “Travelers expect government regulators and the airline industry to continue to be proactive in seeking ways to improve aviation system safety.”
Les Dorr, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, told Space News in a telephone interview Oct. 22, that FAA officials had been briefed by NASA a few years ago, but
never seen a written report. “We don’t know what’s in the report. We haven’t seen it. When we were briefed on it two or three years ago, we did have some questions about how useful the data would be and how the data analysis would be presented. But again, it’s their
Dorr said the FAA has “a host of data collection tools and risk analysis tools” that it uses to gather information on safety incident and to “spot trends that would predict potential problems before they become real problems.”
Dorr said the U.S. aviation industry is operating at a historically low accident rate.