Washington(eTN) — NASA on Monday released an intentionally scrambled, partly deleted version of the safety data it gathered from 24,000 interviews with airline pilots, making good on a promise to Congress to make public information that it said earlier this year would shake public confidence in the airlines and threaten their commercial interest.
But the agency released the data from the $11.5 million program in a format that made it difficult if not impossible for outsiders to analyze in search of trends, presenting the reports as documents rather than spreadsheets. And the NASA administrator, Michael Griffin, said his agency had no plans to do additional work with the material, which he sought to disown in a conference call with reporters.
“It’s hard for me to see any data here that the traveling public would care about or ought to care about,” he said. “But it’s also not for me to prescribe what others may care about. We were asked to release the data and I said that we would, and I’ve done that.”
As released, the survey data no longer linked pilot reports to the type of plane the pilot flew, the pilot’s experience level or other particulars. NASA said the reason was to maintain the anonymity of respondents.
In a sometimes testy exchange with reporters, Dr. Griffin said that it was never NASA’s intention to do anything more than test methods of data gathering. The project, called the National Aviation Operations Monitoring System, sought to uncover safety problems by surveying pilots, rather than waiting for them to make anonymous reports, or gathering information from “black boxes” or similar sources.
But Representative Bart Gordon, Democrat of Tennessee and chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, who extracted the promise from Dr. Griffin to release the information, said that the thousands of pages of “redacted” and “disaggregated” data put on the Internet on Monday was “a start but not a satisfactory start.”
Mr. Gordon said the database, which also includes 5,000 interviews with pilots other than airline pilots, was so extensive that there must be safety insights to be gained from analyzing it.
“Like penicillin or other types of discoveries, it’s not what you went in looking for,” he said. “I think we’re going to find some things that will help us.”
Mr. Gordon and Representative Brad Miller, Democrat of North Carolina, who is chairman of the investigation and oversight subcommittee, pledged to push NASA further. Mr. Miller said that “if 80 percent of the pilots they ask agree to sit still for a half-hour survey, voluntarily, my conclusion is the pilots had something they wanted others to know about.”
“This is now 3 years old, and it’s been dumped, unanalyzed and scrubbed of much of the useful information,” Mr. Miller said.
Dr. Griffin did not say whether the project had yielded any useful insight into how to conduct surveys, which NASA had expected at one point would be extended to mechanics, flight attendants and others. He expressed frustration about his agency’s problems in bringing the project to a close. It was, he said, “intended to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and we seem to be unable to end it, which is a bit frustrating because we don’t have the money to continue it.”
“Researchers being funded by the United States government will always have a strong belief that their research work should be extended ad infinitum,” he said.
But Jon A. Krosnick, a professor at Stanford who helped with the survey design, said in a letter to the Science Committee on Dec. 17 that the project had been terminated before it could be expanded beyond pilots to other personnel important to safety.
NASA’s discomfort with the study it paid for appeared to arise partly from the differing approaches of engineers, who run NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration, and the social scientists who conducted the survey. The engineers tend toward gathering numbers from computers; the social scientists interview people. At the F.A.A., officials have said that the reports in the survey were not sufficiently detailed to be useful. Laura J. Brown, a spokeswoman, said Monday that the survey had gathered “hangar talk, perceptual data” that her agency would probably find hard to integrate with its other data sources. But, she said, “We do intend to see how it can fit with the rest of our data.”