NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told lawmakers Oct. 31 that the agency mishandled its closure of an aviation safety survey program but said there was no attempt to hide information from the public and suggested that some of the conclusions drawn from the raw data were flawed.
With space shuttle astronauts
troubleshooting a damaged solar array on the international space station,
Griffin found himself defending the integrity of his agency before a congressional committee.
NASA’s latest controversy stems from
weekly telephone survey of pilots the agency conducted
for several years before pulling the plug on the project without fully analyzing the results and making them public.
The House Science and Technology Committee called a
after NASA denied
the Associated Press’
request for the raw
data collected by the National Aviation Operational Monitoring Service (NAOMS) project
between 2001 and 2004.
The news organization
had sought the survey data for more than a year
. NASA cited several reasons for denying the request
, chief among them being concerns about compromising the anonymity and confidentiality of any of the 24,000 pilots who participated in the 30-minute telephone interviews.
But one line in NASA’s
attracted most of the attention: “Release of the requested data, which are sensitive and safety-related, could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of the air carriers.
The Associated Press reported Oct. 22 that a pilot survey found near collisions, runway interference and other safety-related incidents occur far more frequently than previously recognized and that
NASA was suppressing the data
to keep from frightening passengers and hurting airline profits.
Griffin sought to assure lawmakers that NASA’s refusal to release the raw survey data was about assuring the anonymity of the participating pilots
, not about protecting the financial well being of their employers. It was a mistake, he said, for any NASA official to have suggested otherwise.
“I don’t think there is any evil intent here,” Griffin said of the project’s termination. “What was not done here was to bring the project to a timely conclusion, to assess the data, to issue a report, to publish that report in peer-reviewed journals, and to release the data to the public in a proper way…
That was not done and we are going to have to do it.”
NASA started NAOMS in 1998 and spent $11.3 million developing and administering the survey before handing it off in 2005 to the Air Line
Pilots Association, which discontinued the
in favor of a less-expensive Internet-based survey.
Griffin told lawmakers that the goal of NAOMS was to develop and test new methods of gathering data that could be used to enhance aviation safety. He said NASA ended up funding the project longer than it intended, but blamed poor project management for pulling the plug
without producing and publishing peer-reviewed analysis of the survey results.
Griffin said he has since directed NASA Ames Research Centerand its NAOMS contractor, Battelle Memorial Institute
, to strip the survey data of anything that could be used to identify individuals or airlines, complete an analysis, and publish a report by Dec. 31.
was not soon enough for some
lawmakers, including Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.),
chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure aviation subcommittee. “If I were in your shoes, I would be directing Battelle to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to get this thing cleaned up so it can be released to the public,” Costello said.
Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.), however, suggested that the survey data, already at least three years old, are not likely to contain any Earth-shattering revelations.
“Let’s get stuff in perspective. The world is not going to rise or fall, and the aviation industry is not going to rise or fall, on the results of this survey. I doubt if we will learn much different from previous surveys,” Ehlers said. “Let’s do it. But let’s not overstate it.”
skepticism about the main thrust of the Associated Press story
, namely that NAOMS found that safety incidents occur much more frequently than previously reported. The story
attributed that characterization to “one person familiar with the survey.”
an aviation safety consultant who served as the NAOMS principal investigator,
there was nothing particularly alarming in the survey results.
Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who helped design the NAOMS survey, said
more work was needed to analyze and validate the results before conclusions can be drawn
about the state of aviation safety. This is something “
we would have loved to do if the funding hadn’t been shut down early,” he
preliminary analysis of the NAOMS survey data showed a higher number of safety-related events than other well-established safety reporting systems, Griffin said. But
industry and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials briefed on those
preliminary results around 2005 called them into question, he said
“The major concern I would have over this data at this point is somebody might put too much credence in it,” Griffin said.
It is simply not credible to believe that the aviation community is experiencing nearly four times the number of engine failures than are being documented by the FAA.”
Griffin also said the survey appears to overstate
how often pilots have had to make unscheduled landings to
If the survey results “are extrapolated forward,” he said, “it yields a result that four times a day a transport aircraft is landing because the crew has to deal with an unruly passenger. Now I recall since 9/11 that that has happened maybe two to three times. If we had people landing four times per day to deal with an unruly passenger, it would be on the nightly news every night. That’s not happening. So it causes us to suspect the quality of this data.”
Griffin said the National Academy of Sciences, in a 2004 review of NASA’s aeronautics portfolio, found no compelling argument for continuing NAOMS. That review raised concerns about the survey’s
since it was administered by pollsters, not aviation experts. The review also said data being collected by NAOMS were redundant with data available through air carriers and the Aviation Safety Reporting System database NASA manages on behalf of the FAA.
Dodd and Krosnick defended the value of NAOMS and said it always was envisioned that, once validated, the weekly surveys would be expanded to include air traffic controllers, flight attendants, maintenance personnel and others.
Both men appealed to lawmakers to help NAOMS achieve that vision.
“I believe NAOMS should be restarted and operated by an independent and unbiased organization,” Dodd said. “Such a program should receive funding directly from Congress to ensure its budget remains adequate to fulfill its mission.”