NASA suppressing aeronautic data: Part II

By Phil Plait | October 26, 2007 10:22 am

In my earlier post about a NASA official’s refusal to release important data on airline safety, there was some confusion in the comments over what’s going on.

NASA commissioned a study to investigate airline safety incidents. Evidently, the results made it clear that accidents and near-accidents are far more common — twice as common, in some cases — as other studies have shown. When pressed on this, a NASA official, Associate Administrator of Institutions and Management Thomas S. Luedtke, refused to release the data, saying it would undermine public confidence in the airline industry.

It really is this simple. He said this very clearly.

The situation is interesting: the study results do indeed indicate things are worse than generally known, but it is also true that really, nothing has changed. The industry is no more or less safe today than it was yesterday before the results were known. So the public perception of this really is the only concern; there is no reason for them to suddenly worry more about airline safety (which would lead to fewer tickets sold for sure).

But you know what? Tough. The study results are bad news, to be certain, but there is not much that can be done about that. Even if the industry takes the results to heart and starts to implement solutions, it’s important that the public knows this. I’d rather know what’s going on, even if it’s bad, then find out a year from now that the industry was told about this without the public being let in on it.

However you slice it, the results should be public. And now that it’s news, it’s doubly important for NASA to release the results, to mitigate the black eye they are getting on this issue.

Moving on, in the comments of the previous post, it was said that this study was the Aviation System Reporting Survey. That is not correct. The NASA study in question was different. Called National Aviation System Operational Monitoring Service, it was done through a contractor, and uses existing databases and other information (ASRS is just one of the sources involved) to develop tools to understand and alleviate possible sources of unsafe aviation situations. Also, while ASRS is searchable and public, the new study’s results are not, and it’s these results that Luedtke wants buried.

I stand by my statement about Mr. Griffin as well: it’s great that he wants to fix this situation, but his spin on what Luedtke said is ridiculous.

Also, I made a crack about Luedtke being a political appointee (referring not-so-subtly to the Bush Administration’s heavy-handed politicizing of so many agencies like NASA). A commenter pointed out that Luedtke was appointed in 1999, so it was Clinton who put him there. I updated the entry to reflect that, and I mention it here to be up front and honest.

And to be absolutely clear: the original post is still accurate to the best of my knowledge. The bottom line is that Luedtke was 100% in the wrong about not releasing the data, and his reasoning for doing so is garbage. Griffin’s response was fine until he tried to spin this, which was also garbage. Congress has taken notice, and hearings will be held.

CNN.com has a pretty good article about all this, too.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: About this blog, NASA, Politics

Comments (30)

  1. Inertially Guided

    Funny, I used to love flying…

  2. >> Why on Earth (or slightly above it) would anyone — least of all NASA — worry more about public perception of air travel over the actual danger of travel?

    Because air travel already has a PR disadvantage not supported by statistics. When cars crash, a dozen people might die. When planes crash, small towns are depopulated. It’s more sensational, and so plane crashes and incidents get a lot more attention than the everyday car crash, which kills millions more per man-mile.

    I am not defending the decision so much as presenting that there is method to the madness.

    To give you an idea of how robustly planes and their components are designed, despite being minimum weight aluminum cans, I recently did analysis on an engine mount involved in a birdstrike. The bird dented the engine fan, entered the core of the engine, demolished the compressor, the aluminum ignited in the combustion chamber, blasted out the turbine, and generally killed the entire engine. It went from tens of thousands of RPM and producing 33,000 pounds of thrust to zero RPM and flat-plate drag in a differential unit of time. The plane landed safely because the engine mount survived the massive impulse torque and transverse loads put on it, keeping the engine from falling off the wing. This force went up the pylon, a thin structure, to the wings, which support the aircraft, and so this entire aluminum can took a rather impressive blow and continued to operate.

    The engine mount is a chunk of metal a little smaller than a breadbox.

    What I’m trying to say is that this NASA report and the ASRS are looking at completely different things, basically ‘how close is the system to its operational limit of smeguppery’ and ‘actionable, truly dangerous items’ respectively. That the air traffic system needs upgrades and needs them now is unquestionable. Air travel, however, is still as close to a safe form of getting from point A to point B that humanity has ever devised short of the horse and buggy.

  3. Doc

    @The Centipede

    No one is contesting the quality of design of airplanes, or that the industry has a PR disadvantage, or even that NASA may have a reason for refusing to release the data.

    But such points are irrelevant (or at best, tangential) to the matter. The crux of the issue is that data which might be useable to make air travel even safer than it is already is being withheld from the public for political reasons. This is unacceptable.

    If the report might unduly alarm the public, add a clearly worded explanation at the start to asuage public fears – most of the public won’t read past the abstract in the first place.

    If the report used flawed methodology, then publish the report along with a full critique of that methodology.

    Either way (or both), the report should be published in full.

  4. >> But such points are irrelevant (or at best, tangential) to the matter. The crux of the issue is that data which might be useable to make air travel even safer than it is already is being withheld from the public for political reasons.

    Unfortunately, Joe “American Jesus” Sixpack generally doesn’t write FAA regulations, requirements, nor have anything to do with the air traffic control system (birdstrikes… well, those happen. Not much one can do about them.). I’m as much of a populist idealist as the next guy, but pragmatism has to come up somewhere. The American people we want to be informed are the same people who think that creationism as a concept is equivalent to evolution so “teaching the controversy” is a good idea.

    When it comes to releasing a report that will have little to no positive effect other than turning up the volume of people pushing for the Next Generation ATC, and mostly negative impact by media outlets and cranks who want to play Chicken Little, I’m decidedly uninterested that some NASA mook decided to play Machiavelli and decided that people couldn’t handle the truth. As it stands, these are air industry events (not even incidents, just events) that have very little role in how air travel really works and is managed. It doesn’t particularly help that the air industry is a critical link in the nation’s logistics (which is the real reason airlines get bailed out).

    Whilst the numbers may not have been made public, rest assured that the FAA and operators probably know all about them.

  5. It seems to me that the politicians probably just mad things worse with all this, “you can’t handle it” stuff. While I don’t think we ( general public ) really need to know the results of every study, in most cases being open is helpful not hurtful. And if they had just released the data it probably would have left the news cycle very quickly without too much trouble. Though if the cnn’s article is correct that they ordered the data destroyed, that’s troubling and makes one wonder what the heck is going on? Much like why did the NFL quickly destroy the Patriots’ spy tapes if there was nothing more to see?

    I also still think there’s not enough here to get all that really worked up over.

  6. Doc

    @The Centipede

    “I’m decidedly uninterested that some NASA mook decided to play Machiavelli and decided that people couldn’t handle the truth.”

    […]

    “Whilst the numbers may not have been made public, rest assured that the FAA and operators probably know all about them.”

    While you might be happy letting some politico decide when it’s in your best interest to ignore scientific data, I’m not. I simply don’t trust government (any government, not just our own) when they do things outside of the public view. Governments have shown many many times that when they’re permitted to do things in secret, they invariably have trouble distinguishing the benefit of the governed from the benefit of the government or governors.

    If that means that Jand or Joe Idiot becomes flustered for a short period of time about something they don’t understand, that’s ok. They’ll soon forget it when some spoiled, stupid little stick figure with poofy lips does something outrageous.

    Feel free to stick your head in the sand, but don’t tell me that I must also.

  7. Chip

    Some have said this shouldn’t be political, and tempers can flare when statements get leveraged toward or away from a political stance. Of course this is really a nonpartisan issue, but there is a political component. In the background, the elephant in the room is that all Republicans (and many Vichy Democrats,) are of an unspoken mindset: Protecting the corporations at all costs, including public safety. The concept of a federal government basically devoted to public service over the self-interests of any political pork or base is simply too “liberal” for some people to conceive of. I’m sure Mr. Luedtke sees nothing inherently wrong in his statement urging to protect corporate airline interests over public safety, but this is worse than wrong, it is immoral.

  8. If this is one study among a group of such studies and it’s numbers deviate from the accepted by 100% it seems that there is probably a lot more analysis that should be done. I’m not suggesting that the study is wrong but that it seems to show trends inconsistent with previous analysis of the data.

    Were the difference within a few standard deviations, I could understand but let’s make sure that the study is correct and corroborated before we throw the public into a panic. Like Phil said, even if this study is correct, and it likely is, the risks haven’t changed they’ve just become more obvious.

  9. >> Feel free to stick your head in the sand, but don’t tell me that I must also.

    Remind me again when I did, please? Besides “rest assured,” I don’t think any of my verb statements varied from either personal description (“I’m decidedly uninterested”) or statements of assertion, both of which are quite distinct from imperatives. I certainly didn’t tell anyone, much less you, not to complain, instead offering my own reasons to play Devil’s Advocate.

    >> If that means that Jand or Joe Idiot becomes flustered for a short period of time about something they don’t understand, that’s ok. They’ll soon forget it when some spoiled, stupid little stick figure with poofy lips does something outrageous.

    While we disagree in this one case, I still like your misanthropy. ;)

    >> I’m sure Mr. Luedtke sees nothing inherently wrong in his statement urging to protect corporate airline interests over public safety,

    It is of course a given that an airliner is a massive investment in capital and wealth and its loss, coupled with the loss of paying customers both in a crash and from future loss-of-sales due to bad public image would be highly detrimental to an industry which has a difficult time staying in the black and, as shown by Pan Am and TWA, can not always hope to be bailed out. With this in mind, please explain how having an unsafe air travel system is somehow in corporate airline interests. Show all work.

    Given that I’m rather certain the FAA’s been informed, I very much doubt the public safety is threatened. These aren’t new incidents, these are mildly problematic everyday events. As was said in the other thread, approaches within a mile or simultaneous landings on separate, non-crossing runways can count as “near misses.” In any case, it’s certainly not any more threatened now than when it was before the report came out, and the fact that most of these things (birdstrikes, congestion, runway incursions) have already been identified as problems that are in nobody’s interest to let continue and thus are being addressed as best is possible without having a convenient Uncle Joe Says “Jump,” You Jump system is one of the reasons I’m not overly concerned about it.

    Now that everybody knows about it, hell, may as well come out of it. I’m just not exactly up in arms about the original decision. Mook makes decision. Decision gets outed. Mook’s boss backtracks, and at this rate everything will be made public anyway. The world continues.

  10. bigjohn

    What is the attitude of these people who take my money, our money, spend it to make a study relevant to the public good(or, maybe, bad) and then withhold the results! It’s kind of like having a shuttle launch without telling anyone so nobody can watch just in case there might be trouble. Phooey!

  11. UmTutSut (Sure, why not?)

    >“Whilst the numbers may not have been made public, rest assured that >the FAA and operators probably know all about them.”

    I can’t speak for the airlines, only for the FAA. We have NOT seen the results of the study. The FAA-industry group CAST was briefed in 2003 on the methods of the researchers and some top-level *preliminary* results. But we don’t know any more about the full results than anyone else outside NASA.

    Les (Friendly Airplane Asylum flack)

  12. Well, that’s a different matter then. Grrr.

  13. Doc

    Case in point. Still trust them to do the right thing?

  14. Somehow, I expected this. ;)

    I was wrong. Mea culpa. We’re all smarter for it now.

    And occasionally, yes, I still trust them to do the right thing every so often… because they’ve got a lot more secrets than air travel event logs, a lot of them have to do with atomic missiles, and if they did the wrong thing we wouldn’t be around to have such a pleasantly friendly discussion.

  15. Doc

    I don’t trust them to do anything right, which is why I prefer to have as much as possible out in the open – including the stuff about nuclear missles.

  16. And that’s well and good. I’m more content with launch codes and SIOP lists being locked well away from people looking for systempunkts. We’ve both got our informed opinions, can back them up with examples and counterexamples, and clearly aren’t going to convince one another (not that I was aware I was even trying)…

  17. JScarry

    Given the push in the administration for European-style user fees it is surprising to me that they’d want to bury anything that is critical of the current system. It must be really bad for them to want to hide something that could support their agenda.

  18. Mark

    I think one of the problems is that, especially since 9/11,the government has made incredible financial commitments to bailing out the airline industry. This is bound to influence any data released by the government that it gathers on the industry.

  19. SpikeNut

    Your post made me laugh, Phil. Really, couldn’t you be a little clearer about it all?

    :)

  20. S. McCulloch

    Could you please use a much larger font. Your site is very hard to read and navigate now, compared to the way it used to be.
    Cheers, Sandy.

  21. Quiet Desperation

    > When cars crash, a dozen people might die.

    Actually, 12 dead would be a spectacular car accident, or a bus going off a cliff.

  22. LarrySDonald

    I generally think this is one of those corners society has slowly painted itself into. It’s easy to go a little too heavy handed on how safe something is or isn’t and the complications that do arise, especially when those fearful are already on the far side of considering things much more risky then they are. But that means bit by bit they are deprived of chances to make rational judgements and are open to rapidly saying “I KNEW IT! It *was* dangerous!” when it’s clear that the openness hasn’t been all encompasing about the minor risks that will indeed be there.

    I’m very divided about the “throw them in the lake and tell them to learn to swim” approach on this. In a sense, it’s only truth (or as close as can be mustered) and people do deserve it. On the other hand, perhaps sometimes these corners have to be unpainted bit by bit, just as they arose – stocking people up with enough to practice understanding them but not so much so that they just quit trying. Full-on pragmatism I’m certainly not with and full-on idealism has it’s appeal, but perhaps the golden middle road is where it’s at – going forward at a steady pace in the right direction without needing to yell “Viva la revolution” so much.

    Not much help in individual cases perhaps..

  23. Kurt

    So we get some “High Ranking Official” from NASA, who says that if certain data is released it might undermine the publics’ perception of the Airline industry. First off anyone with half a brain can see that the public ALREADY thinks that the airline industry is screwed. How many cancelled/late flights were there this year? How many more are there EXPECTED to be next year. I for one got a great taste of the airline industry’s finest when I spent 24 hours on the cold hard concrete of New York’s Laguadia airport. After that little fiasco I might just take the train if I need to travel anywhere in the 48 contigous states. I know I am not alone in this. The several million people who got bumped/cancelled/screwed from the airlines last year and this year will back me up on this. All in all I hope the Airline industry crumbles under it’s own wieght, then we might have some room for smart travel systems.

  24. Al

    I understand and agree with Centipede’s view on the newsworthiness of plane crashes creating a perceptual illusion of increased danger. To be fair though, the statistic that the airline industry prefers to use in safety discussions, namely deaths per passenger mile travelled, is also inherently biased: no-one flies to go a couple of miles. Deaths per passenger journey would be fairer, and still favours aviation over other means of transit, if not quite so dramatically.

  25. Daffy

    Some people are actually arguing that the government should keep important data from us because they know what’s best for us.

    This country is doomed.

  26. Aubri

    I worked in an FAA Runway Safety office for 5 years (2000 – 2005), so if this is the same report that NASA Ames was working on when I was there, it was a free phone number where pilots could call to report their own mistakes and get amnesty* for them instead of waiting to see if a controller caught it. Naturally, controllers can’t see every nose that pokes across the hold line; the great majority of runway incursions we saw in general (I can’t speak to the report itself) were what we called “class D”, meaning that TECHNICALLY the rules were broken but there was no real danger of a collision. So it’s a bit misleading to say “the runways are twice as dangerous as we thought”; if there are twice as many incursions as we thought, fine, I can believe it — but it’s very rare for a really dangerous situation to go unnoticed. That’s probably why they’re hesitating to release it — if you just go by the headline, it doesn’t give you the right picture.

    * Except in the case of really dangerous stuff (class A or B, pilot action was required to avoid a collision), of course. They’re trying to change the system to tolerate human error instead of punishing it.

  27. Aubri

    Edit: Yeah, the one eyesoars was talking about in the previous post. He’s got more of the details from a pilot perspective… I can only speak to what I saw at the office. All such data is minimally secret, since having a person’s mistake broadcast could destroy their reputation unfairly. (“Oh, he’s that guy who pulled out in front of that 747, we don’t want him…” and nevermind 10 previous years of safe service. A controller can easily lose a career over one such mistake, which is why one of the big pushes right now is to develop electronics that can look over his shoulder and warn him of a possible error.)

    The thrust of the Runway Safety program in general is to convert the system from a punitive mode to something that will help the everyone not make errors in the first place, and minimize the risk when mistakes DO happen. For example, by only letting planes cross an active runway at the far end, you minimize the risk of a collision; if someone should take the wrong clearance and cross while another plane is taking off, the departing plane will probably be several hundred feet in the air by the time it passes the crossing plane.

  28. Irishman

    Aubri, you appear to have missed this:

    Moving on, in the comments of the previous post, it was said that this study was the Aviation System Reporting Survey. That is not correct. The NASA study in question was different. Called National Aviation System Operational Monitoring Service, it was done through a contractor, and uses existing databases and other information (ASRS is just one of the sources involved) to develop tools to understand and alleviate possible sources of unsafe aviation situations. Also, while ASRS is searchable and public, the new study’s results are not, and it’s these results that Luedtke wants buried.

    The ASRS system does keep the identification secret, but the incidents are still public. The NASOMS results are currently all reserved and not available. They have not even been presented in full to the FAA, apparently.

    I agree it is sensible to automate where possible, and make policy and system changes to eliminate mistakes up front, and make remaining possible mistakes have limited consequences. It’s a philosophy in Quality engineering referred to as “error-proofing”. That is all irrelevant to the issue of restricting data solely because of negative PR.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT
Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »