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Committee Members to NASA: Public Has a Right to See U.S. Air Safety Survey Data

Oct 31, 2007
Press Release

(Washington, DC) The Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Committee Members today heard from NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin on his agency’s management of the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service (NAOMS).

“It was important that this Committee meet as soon as possible to get to the bottom of what has been going on here, and what NASA intends to do from this point forward,” said Chairman Gordon at today’s hearing. “The American public understands the importance of air safety, and our citizens want to be sure that the government and the aviation industry are doing all that can be done to keep the air transportation system safe.”

NAOMS has garnered headlines recently due to NASA’s refusal to release data collected from an air safety survey of 24,000 of the nation’s airline pilots. NASA had refused to release the survey because they claimed it “could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of the air carriers…” Committee Members called NASA’s refusal “troubling” and “unconvincing.”

The survey, conducted over more than six years at a cost of more than $11million taxpayer dollars, was expected to be the forward-looking tool the U.S. would use to identify emerging aviation safety problems. Instead, NASA stopped the NAOMS project – despite the fact that it had enjoyed unusual success in gathering responses from pilots – and has done nothing since to provide the flying public with the insights gained from the survey.

Chairman Gordon and other Members called on NASA to release the data claiming the public has a right to know about the safety of travel in the nation’s skies. Administrator Griffin announced at today’s hearing that NASA would release the NOAMS data, reversing NASA’s earlier stance. Several questions regarding the specifics of the release still remain, however, and the Committee plans to follow up with NASA to make sure the data is made publicly available in a timely manner.

“Part of NASA’s job is to make sure planes fly safely and by 2025 there will be three times as many planes in the air. I want to know why NAOMS was shut down after we spent 11.3 million in taxpayer money and 24,000 pilots voluntarily took a 30 minute survey, but before learning what the pilots had to tell us about aviation safety,” said Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee Chairman Brad Miller (D-NC).

“NASA has a very important responsibility to protect public safety and to be held accountable for taxpayer funds – neither of these obligations has been met in NASA’s handling of the aviation study. The safety of the public has to be our first priority, especially with more and more Americans flying every year. Although Administrator Griffin delivered the data to the committee, I call on him to make the entire study public as soon as possible so airlines can take the proper precautions to protect their passengers,” said Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO).

“The fact here is that NASA has created a situation by its misstatements that has alarmed and concerned the American people, particularly air travelers,” said Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL). “It is the Administrator’s responsibility to take every immediate action to clear up the confusion that NASA has created and get all of this information out for public review. He should order Batelle to work around the clock, 24/7, to get the information released. The longer we wait, the worse this situation becomes. The taxpayers have paid over $11 million to create this database, and it needs to be released so we can learn from it.”

The U.S. aviation system is changing due to new information and communications technologies that are being introduced into the system. It anticipated that air travel demand will increase by as much as a factor of three by 2025 – equating to 2.3 billion air travelers. The voluntary safety reporting systems of the past may no longer be sufficient to deal with all of the changes projected for the nation’s air transportation system– and NAOMS was designed to be a new, comprehensive safety measurement and analysis tool that would help ensure that the national airspace remains safe in the coming years.

Committee Members gave little credence to NASA’s stated concern that releasing the NAOMS data may undermine confidence in flying among the general public. Members noted that other aviation safety data systems are already open to the public and include plenty of details that could have far more impact on public confidence than data contained in a spreadsheet.

If it had been rolled out operationally, NAOMS would have integrated continuous survey data from pilots, ground controllers, ground crews and cabin crew to create a complete picture of what is happening in the air safety system nationally. This information would not be driven by adverse events and would have a statistical rigor that the self-reporting anecdotal systems lack. As a result, safety experts could mine the data for insights into new safety threats as they emerge.

Dr. Griffin noted today that NASA plans to release a technical report on this matter by the end of the year. Only a week ago, NASA said the report was supposed to be a more comprehensive analytical document with recommendations for improving air safety.

In addition to Dr. Mike Griffin, the Committee heard testimony from Mr. Robert S. Dodd, Safety Consultant and President, Dodd & Associates LLC; Mr. Jim Hall, Managing Partner, Hall and Associates LLC, and Former Chairman, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB); Dr. Jon A. Krosnick, Frederic O. Glover Professor in Humanities and Social Sciences, Stanford University; and Captain Terry McVenes, Executive Air Safety Chairman, Air Line Pilots Association.

Witness testimony, supporting exhibits and accompanying information from the hearing can be found on the Committee’s website.

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110.176

110th Congress