NASA on Monday released results from an $11.3 million federal air safety study it previously withheld from the public over concerns it would upset travelers and hurt airline profits. The research conducted over four years shows that safety problems like near collisions and runway interference occur far more frequently than previously recognized.
NASA promised to publish on its Web site some results of its survey. But it indicated that the data would be published as formatted. It said the data would come in printed reports rather than in any tabular data format that would make analysis by outsiders easier.
NASA drew harsh criticism from Congress and news organizations for keeping the information secret. Rejecting an Associated Press request under the Freedom of Information Act, NASA, in initially declining to release the research, explained that it did not want to undermine public confidence in the airlines or hurt airline fortunes.
Under pressure, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin later overruled his staff and promised Congress that he would release at least some data by the end of the year.
NASA's survey, the National Aviation Operations Monitoring System, interviewed about 8,000 pilots per year from 2001 until the end of 2004. The program was terminated before moving on to interview flight attendants and air traffic controllers, as originally envisioned.
Pilots were asked how many times they encountered more than 100 safety events in flight and on the ground, such as near-collisions, equipment failure, runway interference, trouble communicating with the tower and unruly passengers.
Griffin outraged some NASA employees by saying the project had been poorly managed and that its methodology had not been properly vetted. Survey experts who worked on it, however, said they used state-of-the-art industry techniques and carefully validated the results.
NASA's handling of the matter prompted a congressional investigation and separate investigations by its inspector general and by a union representing NASA workers.