US Air Safety So Bad That
NASA Won't Disclose Survey
RITA BEAMISH / AP 22oct2007
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.
The Associated Press learned about the NASA results from one person familiar with the survey who spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to discuss them.
A senior NASA official, associate administrator Thomas S. Luedtke, said revealing the findings could damage the public's confidence in airlines and affect airline profits. Luedtke acknowledged that the survey results "present a comprehensive picture of certain aspects of the U.S. commercial aviation industry."
The AP sought to obtain the survey data over 14 months under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act.
"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 and general aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey," Luedtke wrote in a final denial letter to the AP. NASA also cited pilot confidentiality as a reason, although no airlines were identified in the survey, nor were the identities of pilots, all of whom were promised anonymity.
Among other results, the pilots reported at least twice as many bird strikes, near mid-air collisions and runway incursions as other government monitoring systems show, according to a person familiar with the results who was not authorized to discuss them publicly.
The survey also revealed higher-than-expected numbers of pilots who experienced "in-close approach changes" — potentially dangerous, last-minute instructions to alter landing plans.
Officials at the NASA Ames Research Center in California have said they want to publish their own report on the project by year's end.
"If the airlines aren't safe I want to know about it," said Rep. Brad Miller, R-N.C., chairman of the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee. "I would rather not feel a false sense of security because they don't tell us."
Discussing NASA's decision not to release the survey data, the congressman said: "There is a faint odor about it all."
Miller asked NASA last week to provide his oversight committee with information on the survey and the decision to withhold data.
"The data appears to have great value to aviation safety, but not on a shelf at NASA," he wrote to NASA's administrator Michael Griffin.
The survey's purpose was to develop a new way of tracking safety trends and problems the airline industry could address. The project was shelved when NASA cut its budget as emphasis shifted to send astronauts to the moon and Mars.
NASA said nothing it discovered in the survey warranted notifying the Federal Aviation Administration immediately. Its data showed improvements in some areas, the person who was familiar with the survey said. Survey managers occasionally briefed the FAA during the project. At a briefing in April 2003, FAA officials expressed concerns about the high numbers of incidents being described by pilots because the NASA results were dramatically different from what FAA was getting from its own monitoring systems.
An FAA spokeswoman, Laura Brown, said the agency questioned NASA's methodology. The FAA is confident it can identify safety problems before they lead to accidents, she said.
In its space program, NASA has a deadly history of playing down safety issues. Investigators blamed the 1986 and 2000 shuttle disasters on poor decision making, budget cuts and improperly minimizing risks. NASA decided to go ahead with a 2006 shuttle launch and is moving ahead with one this week despite safety concerns by NASA engineers in both cases.
Aviation experts said NASA's pilot survey results could be a valuable resource in an industry where they believe many safety problems are underreported, even while deaths from commercial air crashes are rare and the number of deadly crashes has dropped in recent years.
"It gives us an awareness of not just the extent of the problems, but probably in some cases that the problems are there at all," said William Waldock, a safety science professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Phoenix, Ariz. "If their intent is to just let it sit there, that's just a waste."
Officials involved in the survey touted the unusually high response rate among pilots, 80 percent, and said they believe it is more reliable than other reporting systems that rely on pilots to voluntarily report incidents.
"The data is strong," said Robert Dodd, an aviation safety expert hired by NASA to manage the survey. "Our process was very meticulously designed and very thorough. It was very scientific."
Pilot interviews lasted about 30 minutes, with standardized questions about how frequently they encountered equipment problems, smoke or fire, engine failure, passenger disturbances, severe turbulence, collisions with birds or inadequate tower communication, according to documents obtained by the AP.
Pilots also were asked about last-minute changes in landing instructions, flying too close to other planes, near collisions with ground vehicles or buildings, overweight takeoffs or occasions when pilots left the cockpit.
The survey, known officially as the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service, started after a White House commission in 1997 proposed reducing fatal air crashes by 80 percent as of this year. Crashes have dropped 65 percent, with a rate of about 1 fatality in about 4.5 million departures.
NASA had begun to interview general aviation pilots and initially planned to interview flight attendants, air traffic controllers and mechanics before the survey was halted.
In earlier interviews that helped researchers design the NASA survey, pilots said airlines were unaware how frequently safety incidents occurred that could lead to serious problems or even crashes, said Jon Krosnick, a survey expert at Stanford University who helped NASA create the questionnaire. Krosnick also led a Stanford team that paid for a joint AP-Stanford poll on the environment.
"There are little things going on everyday that rarely lead to an accident but they increase the chances of an accident," said Krosnick. "It's the little things beneath the surface that cause the very infrequent crashes. You have to tackle those."
NASA directed its contractor Battelle Memorial Institute, along with subcontractors, on Thursday to return any project information and then purge it from their computers before Oct. 30.
US Civil Aviation Less Safe Than It Seems?
AvioNews / World Aeronautical Press Agency 22oct2007
Washington, USA - NASA refuses to publish the results of a survey on safety matters (WAPA) - After in 1997 a commission of the White House proposed the objective to reduce the fatal accidents in the civil aviation by 80 percent, the NASA, famous US space and aeronautics agency, decided to task the Battelle Memorial Institute a survey among pilots, flight assistants, air traffic controllers and mechanics, in regard to the frequency with which the encountered minor but dangerous threats, as like equipment problems, fires or smoke, passenger disturbances, serious turbulences, collision with birds or insufficient tower communication.
The USD 8,5-millions-project gathered between 2001 and 2005 about 24 thousand interviews, only with pilots, before being prematurely terminated due to the NASA budget cuts. The collected data were never published, and now the space agency demanded to the institute which produced them to return the information and to erase it from their computers by the end of this month.
The reason for this is given directly by NASA, through its associate administrator Thomas S. Luedtke, who declared that the results of the study "Could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers and general aviation companies whose pilots participated in the survey", although the interviews were always conducted with the anonimity guarantee for the pilots as well as for the air-companies.
As it seems, in fact the data of the NASA-commissioned project report at least twice the impacts with birds, almost mid-air collisions and runway incursions than the one published by the FAA, the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as numerous episodes of last-minute landing plans changes.
A speaker of the FAA has criticized the methodology of the NASA-project, but the agency defends itself: "It was very scientific". (Avionews)
Air Safety Secrets
MOFFETT FIELD, CA - NASA has conducted a survey of thousands of pilots on air safety -- but it's not sharing the results.
The reason? According to a senior NASA official, the findings could damage the public's trust in airlines and affect the industry's bottom line.
Just last week, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to get rid of all related data from its computers. And the agency has denied the AP's requests for the information.
Still, a person familiar with the survey who doesn't want to be identified has revealed some of the results. That person says pilots reported at least twice as many bird strikes, near mid-air collisions and runway incursions than other government monitoring systems show. The number of potentially dangerous last-minute landing changes was also higher than expected.
One lawmaker who has asked for information on the survey says he'd like to know if airlines aren't safe, rather than have what he calls a "false sense of security."
Pre-Flight Drinking Report Irks Spacemen
MARCIA DUNN / AP 19oct2007
CAPE CANAVERAL, FL — This weekend as the seven astronauts relax before Tuesday's blastoff into space, the beer will be cold and waiting at crew quarters at Kennedy Space Center. No one will monitor how much they drink, no breath tests given.
"We're all professionals," says Scott Kelly, commander of the last space shuttle mission in August.
While the outside world was aghast at a medical report a few months ago suggesting two cases of drunkenness just before launch, the men and women who fly NASA's space shuttles are indignant.
"It's just such an absurd thing to think that someone would even do that," said Kelly, a Navy commander. "I don't have the words to describe how ridiculous this whole thing is."
He and others agree there's no harm in having a beer a day or two out, and he did just that. During the three days before liftoff, the shuttle crew is in semi-isolation at dorm-style quarters or at the beach house where astronauts enjoy barbecues with their spouses.
Kelly's co-pilot, Charles Hobaugh, a burly Marine colonel, readily admits he's no teetotaler. But he says that coming into launch, his drink of choice is skim milk.
Their mission came just over a week after the controversial report by a special medical panel that mentioned inebriated astronauts, citing interviews with unnamed sources.
What made the anonymous allegations of heavy preflight drinking even worse is that they followed by just months the arrest of Lisa Nowak. The lovelorn astronaut chased her former astronaut-boyfriend's new love interest halfway across the country and ended up in jail. She intends to plead temporary insanity.
It was her case that led NASA to commission a panel of aerospace medical experts to look into the health of astronauts. Their report in late July mentioned the two unverified episodes of drunkenness.
It's been tough on NASA's 91 astronauts, unaccustomed to bad press, let alone ridicule.
"Of course, there are jokes," said Army Col. Douglas Wheelock, a member of the new crew that will be flying Discovery on Tuesday. His family in the Northeast has called him wanting to know, "What's going on down there?"
He said the back-to-back scandals have reminded him "that people are looking up to me, not because of who I am, but because of the suit that I have on."
Peggy Whitson, who recently arrived on the international space station as commander, also has found herself treading carefully.
The drinking issue weighed heavily on her mind before her Oct. 10 launch aboard a Soyuz rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, where preflight toasting is the norm. She said it was "interesting" navigating between the U.S. and Russian cultural differences.
"We don't want people to have an image of us as being a bunch of drunks," she said in an interview with The Associated Press earlier this week.
NASA's long-standing rule — unwritten but universally understood — is that alcohol is forbidden within 12 hours of a launch. No one denies that until then, "alcohol is freely used in crew quarters," as the astronaut health panel stated in its report. It based its findings on astronauts and flight surgeons who were promised anonymity.
Dr. Jonathan Clark, a former NASA flight surgeon whose astronaut wife, Laurel, died aboard Columbia, said he saw plenty of partying in the few days before launch.
"It really got to be kind of crazy," he said, when missions were abruptly scrubbed — a common occurrence because of changing weather or mechanical problems.
"You have this buildup of tension. You go out there and then it gets scrubbed, then you don't know when you're going to go. ... There were definitely times when people drank during that period. Duh. But I don't think it was ever an issue before a mission, like the day of or the day before."
There still is no conclusive evidence that astronauts, at Cape Canaveral or on Soyuz flights from Kazakhstan, were intoxicated right before launch.
NASA's own hunt for details came up empty after poring through 20 years' worth of records and contacting key players.
The chairman of the independent astronaut health panel that issued the report, Air Force Col. Richard Bachmann Jr., contends the sources of the confidential information are too afraid to speak up.
NASA is following up with an anonymous survey of its astronauts and flight surgeons. At the same time, the space agency hopes to have in place by year's end a code of conduct that spells out the prelaunch drinking ban.
"If there was anything that created a problem for us, frankly it was the report," said retired Air Force Col. Pamela Melroy, the commander of the upcoming mission on Discovery.
Warranted or not, Clark believes this year's turbulence is an opportunity for NASA and, in particular, its astronaut corps to improve.
"It's like a football team that's got a really bad record. You've got to pull yourself up and reinvent yourself and do a better job," he said. "In my estimation, it could be one of the best things that happens to NASA."