NASA's damage control machine has been reeling since the Associated Press reported Monday that the space agency conducted an extensive survey of pilots but is refusing to release the data. According to the AP, the survey found that near collisions and runway interference occur far more frequently than previously recognized but the information is being withheld out of fear it would upset air travelers and hurt airline profits.
NASA gathered the information under an $8.5 million federal safety project, through telephone interviews with roughly 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots over nearly four years. Since shutting down the project more than one year ago, the space agency has refused to divulge its survey data publicly.
In light of the report, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said the agency would release some of the data.
"NASA should focus on how we can provide information to the public, not on how we can withhold it," he said in a statement. He said the agency's research and data "should be widely available and subject to review and scrutiny."
That's in marked contrast to the agency's behavior last week, when NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to purge all related data from its computers. On Monday Congress announced a formal investigationand instructed NASA to halt any destruction of records.
After 14 months of Freedom of Information Act requests, NASA official Thomas S. Luedtke issues a final denial of the requests:
"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."
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.
"I don't believe it's in NASA's purpose and mission statement to protect the underlying financial fortunes of the airlines," David Stempler, president of the Potomac, Md.-based Air Travelers Association, said Monday. "They're to provide safety information, and the consequences will fall where they may. We still believe this is an extremely safe air travel system, but it could be made even safer."