NASA Faces Congressional Inquiry Over Pilot Safety Survey

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NASA got into hot water over the weekend when The Associated Press reported that the agency refused a Freedom of Information Act request to release the results of a pilot survey on aviation safety, citing concerns that the report could reflect badly on the aviation industry. U.S. Rep. Brad Miller D-N.C., a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology, wrote to NASA Administrator Michael Griffin that possible damage to the image of the airline industry "does not appear to fall within any of the exceptions" in the FOIA, The New York Times reported. Griffin said on Monday he had just been made aware of the FOIA request and would immediately review the matter. "NASA should focus on how we can provide information to the public -- not on how we can withhold it," he said. Meanwhile, the House Committee on Science and Technology said it also wants to take a look at those records, according to Reuters, and plans to hold a hearing on the matter soon.

The AP said it tried for 14 months to access the reports but NASA stonewalled the effort, saying: "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 AP cited an unnamed source who said the surveys show that hazards like loss of legal separation and runway incursions are much more prevalent than are reported to the FAA and NTSB. The four-year survey, which ended in 2005, contacted 8,000 pilots several times each, by phone, to ask them about their experiences with bird strikes, near-midairs, and other close calls. Griffin said he’ll let the public know what it can know about aviation safety "as soon as possible."