Reversing course, NASA’s administrator promised Congress on Wednesday he will publicly disclose results of an unprecedented federal aviation survey which found that aircraft near collisions, runway interference and other safety problems occur far more often than previously recognized.
NASA had said previously it was withholding the information because it feared it would upset air travelers and hurt airline profits. Citing an insider familiar with the research, The Associated Press reported last week on the survey of some 24,000 pilots.
In testimony prepared for a congressional hearing Wednesday, Griffin said he has directed release “as soon as possible” of all the research data that does not contain what he described as confidential commercial information. Griffin said NASA spent $11.3 million on the research.
“One of the most important NASA principles is to ensure the dissemination of research results to the widest practical and appropriate extent,” Griffin wrote.
In an odd twist, Griffin raised doubts in his prepared testimony about the reliability of his own agency’s research by telling lawmakers that NASA does not consider the survey’s methodology or data to have been sufficiently verified.
Griffin also confirmed in his written remarks that the research showed many types of safety incidents occurring more frequently than were reported by other government monitoring programs. But he cautioned that the data was never validated and warned, “There may be reason to question the validity of the methodology.”
Experts who worked on the study say it adhered to the highest survey industry standards. The research was “state of the art,” said Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University professor who helped create the survey questions. Disputing NASA’s top official, Krosnick told Congress in his prepared remarks that aviation experts from NASA, the Federal Aviation Administration and other groups reviewed the research plans and said further scrutiny would not have been helpful.
“These peer review processes rarely yielded significant changes in the survey process,” Krosnick said.
NASA’s former head of the research survey, Robert Dodd, told lawmakers in his prepared testimony that the survey was based on “outstanding science,” extensively tested and ready for meaningful analysis. Dodd said NASA’s earlier explanations for withholding the information were “without merit.”
“I don’t believe that the NAOMS data contained any information that could compare with the image of a crashed air carrier airplane or would increase passengers’ fear of flying,” Dodd wrote.
In his testimony, Griffin also expressed regret over NASA’s assertion that revealing the survey findings could damage the public’s confidence in airlines and affect airline profits. NASA cited those reasons in refusing to turn over the survey data to the AP, which sought the information over 14 months under the Freedom of Information Act. Griffin has directed his agency to reconsider its denial of the data to the AP.
“I regret any impression that NASA was in any way trying to put commercial interests ahead of public safety,” Griffin wrote. “That was not and never will be the case.”
On Tuesday, Griffin bowed to a request from the lawmakers and sent copies of the raw data — contained on four CDs — to the House Science and Technology Committee.
Officials who have worked on the survey have said it contains no pilot names or airline names. The questionnaire asked pilots to state how many times in the previous 60 days they had encountered a wide range of problems with equipment, weather, tower communication and other safety issues.
NASA’s efforts to withhold the safety research sparked tough criticism on Capitol Hill and in the editorial pages of dozens of leading newspapers — including USA Today, The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune — which urged the agency to release its research. The Times described NASA’s reasons for withholding the information as “lame excuses.”
Griffin also has sought to assure lawmakers that NASA will not destroy the research. Earlier this month, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to return any project information, then purge all related data from its computers. Griffin said that was according to the contract NASA had with the company, but that he has rescinded those instructions.
Although to most people NASA is associated with spaceflight, the agency has a long history of aviation safety research. Its experts study atmospheric science and airplane materials and design, among other areas.
The survey project, called the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service, was launched after a White House commission in the late 1990s called for government efforts to significantly reduce fatal aircraft accidents.