Orlando Sentinel
NASA to release air-safety survey
November 26, 2007
The pilot poll found issues such as near- collisions occur more often than thought.

Mark K. Matthews
Washington Bureau
Original Source

WASHINGTON - NASA's top boss said Wednesday that the agency will no longer block the release of a national survey of airline pilots that found safety problems such as near-collisions occur much more often than previously recognized.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin told federal lawmakers the agency would release the survey by Jan. 1 -- an answer that didn't satisfy U.S. House Democrats.

Members of the House Committee on Science and Technology and others grilled Griffin on the study during a contentious, three-hour hearing.

"NASA needs to focus on maintaining and increasing the safety of the flying public, not on protecting the commercial air carriers," said Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., who chairs the science committee.

One reason NASA had cited for keeping the report confidential was that its release could harm airlines' "commercial welfare." Griffin denounced that stance Wednesday, saying NASA would never put corporate interests "ahead of public safety."

He promised NASA would disclose results of the $11.3 million anonymous survey as soon as the agency is certain it is impossible to identify any of the nearly 30,000 pilots who told researchers about safety issues they saw.

To do that, Griffin proposed removing parts of the database so the public cannot use airport, airline or time details to figure out the pilots.

"It is possible to go back and identify the participants, and that can't be allowed," he said.

About 24,000 commercial and 5,000 private pilots were interviewed from April 2001 to December 2004, according to NASA.

Griffin's response didn't sit well with Democrats, who questioned how much censure was necessary and the amount of time it would take. An Associated Press reporter requested access to the survey more than a year ago.

"Get this done and get this out to the public," said Rep. Jerry Costello, D-Ill. He said NASA must press Battelle Memorial Institute, the contractor behind the survey, to work 24 hours a day to prepare its release. "It is your responsibility to clean this up."

Not everyone joined the attack, however. The committee's top Republican warned of a "serious chilling effect" on future government research if the survey's release allows participants to be identified.

"We should be cognizant of striking a balance between transparency and confidentiality," said Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas.

Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, chastised his Democratic colleagues for assailing Griffin even after the administrator said NASA was wrong and would release the data.

"Like the nagging spouse who enjoys browbeating his partner, the majority proceeded to repeatedly pummel NASA's finest administrator in recent memory," Feeney said in a statement. He did not attend the hearing.

Mark K. Matthews can be reached at mmatthews@orlandosentinel.com or 202-824-8222. 

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