NEWS

Sleeping Pilots Underscore Flight-Risks Described in Suppressed NASA Report

By Matthew Harwood

Congress held a hearing this week on an airline safety data-collection program called the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service (NAOMS), run by NASA. At issue was why NASA has never released the results of the survey. In the hearing, committee members learned of an incident that occurred three-and-a-half years ago that illustrated the flight risks faced by consumers when flying commercial which was documented by a suppressed NASA report.

According to Denver's Channel 7 News:

A commercial pilot and his first officer fell asleep while approaching Denver International Airport in an A319 Airbus jet, going twice the speed as allowed, according to a federal safety Web site.... In the report filed by the pilot, who was not identified, he said he was flying a red-eye, overnight flight from Denver to Baltimore, and after he landed at Baltimore, he sat on the ground for one hour before he flew back to Denver.

"No rest. Just straight seven hours and 55 minute-flight to Baltimore and back. On this particular day in March 2004, after two previous red-eyes, this being the third red-eye in a row, the last 45 minutes of the flight, I fell asleep and so did the first officer," the pilot wrote."Missed all the calls from Air Traffic Control to meet crossing restrictions (where pilots have to be at a certain altitude at a certain location) at the DANDD intersection (the intersection in the sky) in the southeast corridor to Denver. The crossing restriction to be at DANDD was to be at flight level 19,000 and 250 knots. Instead we crossed DANDD at 35,000 feet at Mach .82 (approximately 590 mph)," the pilot continued.

In short, the airplane hurtled through airspace with no one awake at the helm, risking mid-air collision.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), angered that the pilot's report is open-source knowledge on this Federal Aviation Administration Web site, asked why anyone can access this information, while at the same time, NASA would suppress a survey describing events such as these.

The suppressed NASA report in question surveyed roughly 8,000 pilots and found that instances of close calls— planes colliding with birds or near mid-air collisions between planes—was double that of reported FAA numbers. NASA has never released the survey. Reasons given for keeping the information a secret have included that public release would hurt consumer confidence in the commercial airline industry and that promises of confidentiality to pilots providing the information would be breached.

In response to congressional ire, NASA's chief, Michael Griffin, said he would release the survey by year's end. But he also called into question the validity and integrity of the data, saying that it yielded numbers that were not credible, such as implying that four times a day pilots must make unscheduled landings because of problem passengers.

Griffin's assertions that the survey methodology and results might not be reliable were countered by Jon Krosnick, a survey expert who was consulted and by Robert Dodd, the manager of the project at NASA.

Krosnick said that the survey was designed to deal with the possibility that more than one pilot might report the same incident. He said that if the total numbers seem high, it may be that analysts have not properly done these calculations.

Dodd told the congressional committee looking into the issue that his team "made an extraordinary effort to clean and validate the data collected through the survey. The resulting data is of good quality and ready for meaningful analysis" he asserted, asking: "Why would anyone decide that additional information, especially when it deals with the safety of the traveling public, should be hidden?"

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