October 22, 2007

What NASA Won't Tell You

NASA commissioned a study of aviation safety through thousands of interviews with the people with a bird's-eye view of the industry -- the pilots. After conducting telephone interviews with 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots from 2001 to 2005, NASA had a good picture of the difficulties faced by the industry. Now they refuse to share that information, and have instructed their contractor to erase all the data:

Anxious to avoid upsetting air travelers, NASA is withholding results from an unprecedented national survey of pilots that found safety problems like near collisions and runway interference occur far more frequently than the government previously recognized.

NASA gathered the information under an $8.5 million safety project, through telephone interviews with roughly 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots over nearly four years. Since ending the interviews at the beginning of 2005 and shutting down the project completely more than one year ago, the space agency has refused to divulge the results publicly.

Just last week, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to purge all related data from its computers.

What did the report reveal? According to the AP's sources, the FAA underreports safety-related incidents by at least half. Bird strikes, near-misses, and runway mishaps occur at least twice as often as official statistics note. The number of last-moment approach changes, which can be particularly dangerous according to the report, also outstrips the FAA reporting.

One NASA official went on record to explain the reluctance to release the findings. Thomas Luedtke, an associate administrator at the agency, claimed that the report would undermine confidence in air travel and could impact industry profits, in his denial letter to the AP. Luedtke also noted that the report did provide a "comprehensive picture of certain aspects of the US commercial aviation system," a combination of assertions that won't make anyone feel much safer than the release of the actual report.

Most people do not fly on a lark. They fly for business or to see family or go on vacation. Travelers would not end those behaviors if they discovered that the airline industry needs more resources and oversight to improve safety; they would just insist on getting those changes made. Even someone who dislikes air travel as much as I do knows that the American industry has a remarkable safety record, and that the people who operate within it want safety even more than I do -- because their lives depend on it.

Since NASA has already spent the money on the survey, we should allow that data to get published so that the taxpayers who footed the bill can find out what pilots actually say about safety issues. Congress should ensure that NASA releases the findings so we can determine what needs to be done to make air travel even safer. For those who fly the airplanes and serve the customers, as well as for the customers themselves, NASA and the FAA owe us no less.


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Comments (38)

Posted by quickjustice | October 22, 2007 7:30 AM

Years ago (before 9/11), a commercial pilot told me that if the public really knew what happens behind the scenes at the commercial airlines, no one would ever fly.

After 9/11, I didn't fly for a year. Now I fly only for business, and only when it's essential. I don't believe that flying is any safer than it was on 9/10/01, or that the TSA is anything other than window dressing so that the industry and the government can claim that they're doing something to protect us.

And as for the current cover-up, it merely confirms what I was told years ago.

Posted by Controller Joe | October 22, 2007 7:32 AM

This fits in perfectly with the FAA's latest attempt to "fix" errors that we air traffic controllers sometimes have....they have changed the parameters of what is to be called an "error", and the "minor" errors are now called "events" and are not counted in the error count.

Posted by John Wilson | October 22, 2007 7:36 AM

There is an empirical safety analysis where the number of landings and the number of take offs correlate. How's that ratio staying so constant if we are in such danger that we can't be told?

Posted by Robert Bell | October 22, 2007 7:55 AM

From: http://www.faa.gov/about/mission/activities/

- Regulating civil aviation to promote safety
- Encouraging and developing civil aeronautics, including new aviation technology

Perhaps there is some tension between these two objectives.

Posted by MarkT | October 22, 2007 8:04 AM

The linked story doesn't talk about who influenced the decision to kill the report. What do you all think? Was it the FAA, the airlines, or the administration?

Posted by meep | October 22, 2007 8:10 AM

Though few people fly on a lark, many of the things we fly for in business can be substituted with teleconferencing and other tech options. We also don't need to take vacations where you've got to fly to get there -- it's a huge country, and most of us have leisure options within a few hours' drive.

So I would say the airlines do have some serious business concerns here, in that volume would probably take a hit, at least with leisure travel.

Posted by docjim505 | October 22, 2007 8:18 AM

Ditto John Wilson. While it's always a good idea to review and critique any system with an eye to making improvements (i.e. always striving for perfection), our system doesn't seem to be "broken": most people arrive at their destination alive.

Now, it may be that the report might throw some light on why there are so many delays; THAT would be interesting information.

I also echo MarkT: who killed the report? And why?

Posted by Brett | October 22, 2007 8:47 AM

Routine secrecy has made it impossible for the willing to become well-informed.

In other areas of government activity, routine classification delays a proper understanding of history for half a century. This is indefensible.

Posted by SupplyGuy | October 22, 2007 8:49 AM

Why can't the government just treat us like adults?

Posted by ajacksonian | October 22, 2007 8:50 AM

A FOIA request should get the information divulged... it was done with Federal funds with Federal contracting oversight. The People deserve to know what they get for their money, and if they won't release the report then the FOIA needs to cover all the contracting materials including legislative and/or executive line items and directives passed on for the line item.

Even poorly run studies can yield information, although it is usually of the problems of the agency running it...

Posted by chrisb | October 22, 2007 9:01 AM

First of all, we all know air travel is still safer, so why not publish this?

Secondly, this problem goes far beyond bird strikes and even air travel in general. I am really sick and tired of politicians hiding information from me because they think I'm too stupid or emotional to deal with it. What a low opinion of citizens Mr. Luedtke must have. He must think we're all children to be coddled and manipulated.

By "politicians" I also include leading scientists at NASA, the FDA, etc, who continually talk down to us and hide information. Remember when they started telling us "avoid all fat it's bad" despite knowing mono-unsaturated fats like olive oil were very good for you? Or even now, when climate change is so important, instead of encouraging debate they say "the debate is over" and compare anyone who disagrees to holocaust deniers.

How can we learn or make informed decisions when we vote when people like this are in charge hiding information from us? The reason the very first amendment guarantees a free press is so that we can be educated and make informed decisions.

I wonder if FOIA can get that information out?

Posted by AJStrata | October 22, 2007 9:12 AM

Hey Captain,

My experience with NASA on these things is they will let out the data and let the chips fall where they may - if they have confidence in the data.

Here is a plausible (and likely) scenario you may wish to consider. NASA gets the data from this study (which is actually quite cheap for a study - a little over $2M per year which translates into about 8 full time equivalents. And that doen't account for the cost of the survey.

NASA would notice the potential media fall out immediately from the results. And before they move to make it public they probably decided to have the results checked by an independent group. My guess is there were serious problems with the methodology and the conclusions - otherwise NASA would not hold up the publication. It is OK to come to stark conclusions based on sound analyses (NASA does this all the time to itself). But they cannot let their credibility suffer because they made stark conclusions using shakey or erroneous analysis.

My two cents of speculation - free of charge as usual.


Posted by Cousin Dave | October 22, 2007 9:15 AM

This is all very strange. It's not clear to me why this project was launched in the first place, considering that NASA already has the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS) project, which does the same thing, and has data going back a lot farther. The ASRS database is still up; I just checked. (asrs.arc.nasa.gov; it's accessible to the public.)

There's a rat here somewhere. I'm just not sure where.

Posted by AJStrata | October 22, 2007 9:16 AM


All NASA results should be available to the public - those interested need to keep pushing - NASA will have to succumb sooner or later.

Posted by Zoef | October 22, 2007 9:18 AM

I fly a lot, say at least twice a week, albeit mostly in Europe although the official safety record is probably similar. In the past 5 years I remember the following incidents:

1. aborted landing: 2 (Fort Lauderdale, NIce)
2. aborted take-off: 2 (Brussels, twice)
3. very very severe cross wind: 2 (Amsterdam and Heathrow: pilot on intercom: "the trickiest landing I've ever done")
4. emergency landing: 1 (Geneva)
5. evasion maneuver: 1 (plane entered into another plane's wake) (Heathrow)

And these are only the incidents that we as passengers are aware of. Flying is definitely less safe than I thought it was. Or perhaps you shouldn't fly when I'm on board.

Posted by Cousin Dave | October 22, 2007 9:19 AM

AJ, I wonder if someone at NASA perhaps realized that the study may not have been covered by the legal exemptions that protect the ASRS system. If not, then a subpoena could discover the identities of pilots who participated in the survey, possibly opening them up to FAA enforcement action or lawsuits.

Posted by AJStrata | October 22, 2007 9:31 AM

Cousin Dave,

reporting systems like ASRS become 'sanitized' over time. People think some events are important, others think they are not. One way to validate the findings on ASRS is to do an independent survey to see how first hand accounts relate to the ASRS results. The problem is with the pilot survey you run into biases, strong and unreasonable opinions, and disgruntled employees who want to get back at the system. And trust me, the pilots and cabin crews are not happy right now.

From what I hear most of the delay problems are due to the new rules the FAA released earlier this year related to how to deal with weather, etc. The finely tuned and balanced system fell apart when the new rules came in, and we the travellers have been paying for it ever since.

I know, I travel at least once a month.

Posted by arch | October 22, 2007 9:45 AM

After 20 years in the USAF and another 25 in the aerospace and defense industry, I have little positive to say about NASA, the FAA or their TSA spawn.

NASA was the world's finest aerospace engineering bureau until the Apollo Program ended. Thereafter, they sought a mission befitting their history. Operationally, their view was to continue moving meat through space for science. Projects such as Voyager, Viking, Mars Rover and Galileo Space Craft, proved that the science could be advanced by robotics at a much lower cost and risk. One mission they have been working for several years is the upgrade of the National Airspace System; another, Global Warming.

The FAA, as a regulatory agency, is spring loaded to say "no" to any idea that did not originate with them or Mitre, their technical contractor. In 2003, I proposed a system to FAA that would allow reduced separation and closely space parallel approaches, significantly reducing delays. My sister-in-law, an SES in DOT, had had lunch with a colleague. Their topic of conversation had been, "Why do so many good ideas die in the FAA?"

When she asked me how my meeting went, I answered, "Timothy McVeigh blew up the wrong building!"

As others have noted, if NASA and/or the FAA spent public funds on this survey, the results, unless classified, should available to the public under the Freedom of Information Act regardless of how these data might affect the airline industry.

Posted by AJStrata | October 22, 2007 10:09 AM

Cousin Dave,

It is possible. I doubt NASA would hold it back because it made air travel look as bad as we all know it is. Something is wrong legally (I doubt this is it, but clearly possile) or with the methodology, else they would have released it.

If NASA wanted to get more funding (which they do) they would have released the report and showed how they could now work independent of the FAA to help identify and fix the problems!


Posted by G. Moore | October 22, 2007 10:13 AM

NASA should have been a little more sophisticated and:

(1) Anticipated that word of the results would get out, and
(2) Realized that trying to keep it quiet would create an even bigger dust-up.

They may be great scientists, but they're lousy communications people.

Now then ... can't President Bush order the release of the results? And if he can, shouldn't he? The study was conducted with taxpayer money, so we own it and have a right to see it.

Is the airline industry creating pressure to keep the study secret? I would not be surprised. The industry has far too much control of flight safety, including passenger screening procedures.

We hire people to regulate and control the industry, and I'd definitely like to see them do a better job. We have the situation we have because we, the flying public, accept it. Shame on us.

Posted by F | October 22, 2007 10:16 AM

To call the data or resulting report "classified" might not technically be accurate. I worked for many years with classified material -- i.e. documents stamped with a national security classification (confidential, secret and top secret.) Information in reports like these would only qualify for national security classification on one or two limited grounds. More likely, they are stamped "Official Use Only", which formerly was Limited Official Use. In this case, believe it or not, it can actually be harder to have the information be made public because standard declassification rules do not apply. I also worked for several years in the State Department office that reviews documents for possible release under FOIA, and I would say these data or the resulting report would definitely be subject to FOIA. Write NASA and ask for the release of any records between (relevant dates) covering contractor-conducted pilot interviews about safety issues. You need to specify the time frame, and you need to make the request specific enough that it doesn't overwhelm the system by asking for every record that "concerns safety," as that would be a huge trove of documents, would take years to collect and review, and would cost a lot. On top of that, most of it wouldn't be relevant. BTW, yes, they have 10 days to respond under FOIA, but it is impractical for them to retrieve and review relevant data in less than several months, so their 10-day response will be "we have your request and we're working on it." Also, recognize that FOIA is a huge burden on most executive agencies (note that when Congress enacted the law they exempted themselves!!!) and they try to adhere to the letter of the law with retirees or contractors, so they're always playing catch-up. A better approach might be to get your Congressperson interested enough in this information to make the request as a Congressional. That usually happens much quicker. F

Posted by swabjockey05 | October 22, 2007 10:29 AM

The Naval Safety Center statistics say that Navy/Marine Corps pilots have a much higher chance of dieing in a Naval Aircraft mishap than they do driving their car in the U.S. Think about that: It’s safer for me to drive to work than to fly a Navy plane (Naval mishap rate is not a lot higher than Comm/General Aviation rates).

When they "compare" flying with driving cars they include all deaths on the highways...including the 17-19 year olds who pound a fifth of Jack Daniels right before rapping their Cutlass around a telephone pole.

If you are sober, 40-50 year old, married w/kids you may be about as safe on the road as you are in Comm Air.

That being said, I'm not sure I'm unhappy that NASA's Study gets flushed...I have too much of my "retirement fund" "invested" in my Mooney. The last thing I need is for the FAA to use some trumped up NASA study to stiff me for more tax/fees. I'm already taxed out the arse.

There are new technologies about to be "forced" on Commercial and General Aviation. They may help or they may make things worse (in spite of the HUGE financial cost). Too many pilots are spending their time playing with gadgets instead of keeping their EYE BALLS OUT THE WINDOW!!

Good "See and Avoid" practices combined with the "Big Sky Little Airplane" theory is worth 100 new magic boxes...no matter what L-3, Raytheon, Dyncorps etc tell the FAA.

Posted by F | October 22, 2007 10:46 AM

Still on the subject of safety, I am a flight instructor and commercial pilot now that I'm retired from State. Yes, there are a lot of safety incidents out there, and we as pilots are alert to them and remember them. Does that mean the system is broken? I don't think so. There's a certain amount of "war story telling" that's going on -- ask any pilot if he's ever been scared and he'll tell you a half dozen stories that will make your hair stand on end. Is it worse now than it was when I started in sport aviation 40 years ago? I don't think so. There are more planes in the air, and we're flying closer together, but our equipment is more reliable and our ability to "see" other aircraft is dramatically better. Now we know -- better than ever before -- when we're close. And pilots now work a lot harder for passenger comfort. I recently flew across the continent twice on United, and was able to listen to the pilot's communication as he flew. It was surprising to me how much of his communication had to do with reporting turbulence and requesting different altitudes in an effort to find smoother air. I suppose in both instances the pilot would have considered the flight difficult because of the weather. For me, the "chop" he was reporting was clearly a mountain wave phenomenon, unremarkable except insofar as it indicated he was spending more fuel (or less on the east-bound leg) to stay on schedule in a strong headwind. To the pilot, he was concerned about whether his passengers could enjoy their cocktails and movie. I believe navigation errors and equipment failure are dramatically reduced from when I first started flying. It's a different world out there now and pilots who think safety suffers should have tried the flights they now call routine with reciprocating engines, star fixes and trailing HF communications equipment! F

Posted by cottus | October 22, 2007 10:55 AM

My complaint is with the waste of $8.5 Million in the first place. Cousin Dave smells a rat. I think think the problem has more to do with too many barnyard fowl:

This is a prime of example of a blind, mindless fear that bothers me more than anything else. Kids don't even walk to school much anymore, we're 'way behind the rest of the world in the release of useful new drugs, cost/benefit analysis be damned, slap on the latest auto 'safety' device*, and on and on.

*Mandatory air bags?? Our forefathers are rolling over in their graves.

Posted by runawayyyy | October 22, 2007 11:04 AM

This could be nothing more than avoiding another politically motivated lynch mob....it's entirely possible that this report shows a higher number of fairly innocuous events happening in the skies, events that, although undesireable, haven't caused anyone to get killed....

but remember how easy it is to take something that means little and turn it into a firestorm by people who merely want to beat up on the administration yet again for something they have no control over....anyone remember katrina? remember all those people being cannibalized in the superdome? remember all those helicopters being shot at? remember all those poor black people dying in the rivers that used to be the streets of the 9th ward? none of it was true....but all of it was standard talking points for years, some of it still is....

I see no reason to harm the airline industry unnecessarily....that being said, the report should be released if for no other reason than I'm tired of being lied to, even by omission.

Posted by Phelps | October 22, 2007 11:32 AM

Am I the only one who's first thought was that it was buried simply because it was embarrassing to the FAA because it showed shoddy record keeping on their part (rather than actual intent to under-report)?

Posted by Del Dolemonte | October 22, 2007 11:58 AM

Anyone remember former DOT Inspector General Mary Schiavo? She raised some of the same issues 10 years ago in her book "Flying Blind, Flying Safe". But she and the book were widely trashed at the time.

Some of the book criticism was definitely justified, as the book was rushed out and had errors that should have been caught (such as her clueless description of how a GPS system works!) But she also raised issues that would come back to haunt the airlines on September 11 a few years after the book came out.

Posted by ZZMike | October 22, 2007 1:41 PM

The problem with FoIA requests in this case is that NASA "... instructed their contractor to erase all the data".

On the other hand, Sarbanes-Oxley specifically prohibits that (unless there's a fine print that says "unless instructed"). So it the contractor complies with NASA, it gets canned by Sarbanes Oxley. It may be that that only applies to financial firms, but perhaps not.

Posted by Decline to State | October 22, 2007 2:05 PM

My father, a career NASA research pilot and (among other things) aviation safety expert, published in-house papers on the subject of commercial carrier safety and cockpit procedure issues. He felt it was so sensitive that he had my little sister do the typing and editing (yeah, back in the 70's) rather than asking the AA's at NASA to work on it. He didn't even trust me to work on it, since I was "too knowledgeable" and might be unwilling to maintain confidentiality. Mostly they focused on airline training and CRM (cockpit resource management) procedures, and frankly, the excerpts I was able to see scared the hell out of me. I have no trouble believing that NASA and FAA brass would actively suppress a report like the one in the post.

Posted by AH·C | October 22, 2007 2:10 PM

I tend to agree with AJS. $8.5 million is too cheap to warrant the quality of the extensive survey implied.

Using some off-the-cuff assumptions, the contractor probably spent no more than 30 mins (likely just 10 - 15 mins) conducting the phone survey and the rest of the time was scrubbing data, "divining" a trend and dressing up a report (8x10 color glossies for a blind judge comes to mind).

I'd also be curious as to whether it was an 8(a) small business set-aside contract? If so, it's conceivable that even more money got churned (doing less with more$$). Not always the case, but, here we're most likely talking about a survey contract for the least-cost vs a best-value contract for subject matter expertise.

Posted by daytrader | October 22, 2007 2:46 PM

Part of the problem is we keep to the same method of major hub airports ever expanding their capacity in high priced real estate areas with little room left for growth. Plus in the sub hubs you have a mix of commercial and general aviation.

Total aircraft in the air is expanding and will for the far future. Even moving to monster size aircraft will not solve the issue.

10 or 12 major hubs carry a majority of the traffic and a large percentage of passengers through a hub are not destined for that hub but is just a stop on their trip.

More hubs distributed through the country would greatly relieve congestion on current air routes and leveling traffic between existing hubs would help also.

Posted by swabjockey05 | October 22, 2007 3:08 PM

You guys who "have the Hell scared out of you” had best not take a look at your local Hospital. Those sawbones kill WAY more people than are killed by planes auguring in...

Take a look at Airline "crew rest" requirements then talk to your local Gastroenterologist. Think he/she gets as much time off between "procedures" that the Delta Captain gets between flights? Do these specialists have “crew rest”? Nope. You see, doctors are so much smarter than the rest of us that fatigue doesn’t effect them.

The aviation “safety experts” always have “horror stories”. It’s part of their job to ferret them out. What do you think is covered up by the Hospital “safety experts”? That is…if they even exist…other than to cover their fellow doctors’ collective arses.

The system is not broken. I’ve participated in these kinds of safety survey/studies. The “horror stories” mentioned in the report are already known by the “system” and being worked on. Remember, the pilots don’t want to die either. They already have a process for reporting “safety issues”….whether or not the data from this NASA study is shredded or not…your safety is not jeopardized. If you think it is not safe, by all means don’t fly. You have a choice. Unfortunately, you don’t have as much of a choice when it comes to the sawbones.

Posted by Del Dolemonte | October 22, 2007 5:19 PM

daytrader says:

"10 or 12 major hubs carry a majority of the traffic and a large percentage of passengers through a hub are not destined for that hub but is just a stop on their trip.

More hubs distributed through the country would greatly relieve congestion on current air routes and leveling traffic between existing hubs would help also."

My "local" (40 miles away) airport, MHT, is quickly becoming one of these new hubs. It's even started to call itself "Manchester Boston Regional". We have Delta/Delta Connection/Comair, Continental, Air Canada, Northwest, Southwest, United/United Express and US Airways/US Airways Express. So I can pretty much fly anyplace I could fly from Logan in Boston and it's much less hassle. Some friends and I flew out to Hawaii from MHT several years ago and we only had to change planes once, in LAX. Not bad!

Posted by Poole | October 22, 2007 6:45 PM

The study found twice as many problems as had been officially reported by the FAA.

FAA: 1 aircraft commander - 1 incident - 1 report.

Phone survey: 2 pilots - 1 incident - 2 reports?

Posted by Larry (USAF ret) | October 22, 2007 6:50 PM

Posted by F | October 22, 2007 10:46 AM "...ask any pilot if he's ever been scared and he'll tell you a half dozen stories that will make your hair stand on end."
You just induced a flood of memories, F. Thank the good Lord, I walked away from them all. One apt description of flying for a living: Hours and hours of boredom interspersed with moments of stark terror.

Posted by njcommuter | October 22, 2007 10:52 PM

Larry, I bet there are over-the-road truck drivers who'd say the same thing.

Posted by RogerZ | October 23, 2007 9:24 AM

Those that are suppressing this report are probably doing so out of the understandable fear of public overreaction. The U.S. public is now so innumerate, so risk averse, so unable to evaluate costs and benefits, and so decadently pampered and entitled that this report would certainly create an irrational uproar, along with counter-productive legislation, finger-pointing etc.

Basically, the average American (really, westerner) expects that all the benefits of the modern technological world should come for free. We don't want to be faced with the reality of tradeoffs. And our politicians are more than happy to exploit this ignorance to gain a few minutes of publicity. The end point of these feeding frenzies is almost always laws which punish actual innovation and thereby reduce the potential for future safety improvements. See: what happened to nuclear energy in this county post-TMI.

To those that say that pilots are really saying things are less safe than they used to be, my response is: it obviously isn't bad enough for them to be voting with their feet, i.e. quitting their jobs. If someone who flies 100 times as many miles as I per unit time does not feel the risks to his life are sufficient to find another career, then I can be satisfied the risks to my life are worth the benefits of rapid transport.

Obviously, pilots are people too, and will rent-seek for ever more expenditures to increase their safety, so long as others are paying the rent. The rational person will therefore discount these pleadings in their analysis of the situation.

Oh yes: where are the actual statistics on crashes and fatalities per passenger mile in this discussion?

Posted by Larry Sheldon | October 23, 2007 8:53 PM

NASA data? NASA? The people that Steve McIntyre and Anthony Watts and other write about?

Good luck with that!

Did you ever read about Richard Feynman and the same NASA?

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