Fear of flying

Airplane ThumbSo much for NASA’s supposed new “safety culture”…

I’m amazed that this news seems to be getting very limited coverage outside of the usual space-related sites, but it appears that NASA is falling down on the job again when it comes to safety. But this time, the mess isn’t over astronaut safety — it’s over the safety of the traveling public in the U.S.

NASA apparently spent 4 years and $8.5 million conducting interviews with about 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots — the idea being to get a better handle on how many “near misses” and other potential safety problems were occurring in U.S. skies. Originally, the survey was supposed to be expanded to include baggage handlers, flight attendants, and such — but then was abruptly stopped. Since shutting down the survey over a year ago, NASA has been sitting on the results.

The Associated Press worked for 14 months to get a look at results from the study, and was stonewalled the whole time. Inside information that the AP gathered about the survey doesn’t make anybody look good:

An unprecedented national survey of pilots by the U.S. government has found that safety problems like near collisions and runway interference occur far more frequently than previously recognized. But the government is withholding the information, fearful it would upset air travelers and hurt airline profits.

Upon hearing that NASA had directed its contractor (Battelle Memorial Institute) and subcontractors to return any project information and then purge it from their computers, the AP went public — in a report by Rita Beamish that was reworked and republished in a number of places.

Once this was out in the open, the NASA administrator came around — but understandably, Congress wants an investigation. It’ll be interesting to see how this whole thing shakes out. Who put the kibosh on the release of this information? And why the secrecy, when the lives of the traveling public are at stake? I’ll dodge the temptation to get too political, but the emphasis on airline financial health over public safety reminds me of some other recent events…

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