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NASA Space Government Politics

What NASA Won't Tell You About Air Safety 411

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the wtb-better-drugs dept.
rabble writes "According to a report out of Washington, NASA wants to avoid telling you about how unsafe you are when you fly. According to the article, when an $8.5M safety study of about 24,000 pilots indicated an alarming number of near collisions and runway incidents, NASA refused to release the results. The article quotes one congressman as saying 'There is a faint odor about it all.' A friend of mine who is a general aviation pilot responded to the article by saying 'It's scary but no surprise to those of us who fly.'"
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What NASA Won't Tell You About Air Safety

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  • by hcmtnbiker (925661) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:37PM (#21075941)
    How is this really that bad? Even when the pilots suck, and the traffic controllers are asleep at the helm we still manage to be safer then driving. Seems to me like flying is pretty damn safe, and even better if everyone is paying attention to whats going on.
  • by nweaver (113078) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:37PM (#21075943) Homepage
    The drive to the airport.

    Flying is so much safer than driving to the airport it is not even funny.
  • by Irvu (248207) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:40PM (#21075981)
    Is it really NASA as a whole. Keep in mind that until a year or so ago a single Bush-appointed kid was responsible for censoring all of NASA's press releases about basic science. The kid in question had no college degree, no background in science, and his sole qualification appeared to be having been head of the Texas young republicans at his school. This despite opposition from most of NASA.

    Not to sound like some NASA apologist or something but in my experience with large institutions many of the things done "by NASA" or some other group are often the work of one or a few key individuals and many times may run counter to the very goals of the institution and most people involved in it. It wouldn't surprise me if the political appointee that replaced the kid is doing this.
  • meh (Score:4, Insightful)

    by DirkGently (32794) <dirk@noSPaM.lemongecko.org> on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:43PM (#21076035) Homepage
    Air travel is like hot dogs. Ignorance is bliss.

    Seriously though, I try to remind myself that the pilots are just as interested in getting to the destination in one piece as I am.
  • My question is (Score:2, Insightful)

    by sdkramer (411640) <seth@sethkra m e r.com> on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:46PM (#21076067) Homepage
    why is NASA doing this? Isn't this the domain of the FAA and NTSB?
  • by moogied (1175879) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:46PM (#21076071)
    No my silly friend.. A near miss is a term of proximity.. A near hit is a practice in redundancy. A near hit would be two things hitting eachother, while near eachother(see how its redundant?) A near miss would be two things *nearly* hitting eachother.
  • by cmowire (254489) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:47PM (#21076101) Homepage
    Well, we know that it's safer in terms of getting killed largely because it's awful hard to cover up a plane crash. :P
  • Re:Watch the Sky (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Kazrath (822492) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:49PM (#21076127)
    So what your saying is... They missed each other by 1/2 a mile or more directly over multiple airports that you are 3 miles from? Sounds pretty obvious to me.
  • by RobertB-DC (622190) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:50PM (#21076137) Homepage Journal

    "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," Luedtke wrote in a final denial letter to the AP. NASA also cited pilot confidentiality as a reason, although no airlines were identified in the survey, nor were the identities of pilots, all of whom were promised anonymity.

    Amazing. Once upon a time, the only valid reason for withholding information was if it would affect the nation's security. Now, "commercial welfare" is just as valid as "national security".

    How many other documents can now be hidden from public view, given the low bar of "could materially affect the public confidence"? Apparently, if you're not "confident", you're with the terrorists!
  • by Goldarn (922750) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:56PM (#21076241)
    Is it a "near miss" when a collision is narrowly avoided? or is it a "near miss" when two planes pass closer than they should to each other, but were really in no real danger of colliding? For example, on the freeway, cars sometimes swerve towards another car, then realize what they are doing, and move back into the center of their lane. Is that a "near accident," or just a normal occurrence? I'm serious about this. I'd really like to know what counts as a "near miss."
  • by pnagel (107544) on Monday October 22, 2007 @03:57PM (#21076247)
    Isn't the safety of an activity determined by the number of actual accidents, and not by the number of near-accidents?

    For example, I've been driving about 14 years without ever causing an accident (or at least, none that I was involved in to know of :-). However, I often find myself in the situation of almost making an accident.

    Fo example, you start to do a lane change, and suddenly, before you actually enter the other lane, you notice another car there, and abort the lane change. The point of driving experience and skill is it also helps you to cope with the near-accidents that your driving skills failed to prevent.

    Surely something similar is relevant to flying too?
  • by Puls4r (724907) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:00PM (#21076283)
    Great. So we've got politicians blaming the National Aeronautics and Science Agency for not telling the whole truth? And we're gonna believe... who?

    I agree with you on your point - air travel is incredibly safe by nearly every measure that matters. Crashes, fatalities, etc.

    You simply can't be safe all the time. You can't. As you sit there right now, look down. How old is your surge surpressor? Is it within it's lifetime as specified by the manufacturer? Is your seat ergonomically correct, and is your computer sitting at exactly the right height? No, you probably won't die from carpal tunnel, but it's "unsafe" to work in the manner you are doing so right now.

    I work for one of the big 3, and I can't tell you how much emphasis we put on safety, and still people die. Look at all the work put into passenger car safety. Look at all the law enforcement, traffic signals, and safety equipment on the cars. Despite all that work, someone can throw up the horrify XXXX many people were killed this year. It looks bad until you consider how many car trips there were.

    When is the last time you slipped on ice? Merged without signalling? Ran with scissors? Cut towards your hands?

    Why are we worried about this, exactly, and not about more important things like how we are going to pay social security to the baby boomers? (that's rethorical, in case you missed it...)
  • by Alotau (714890) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:01PM (#21076321)
    NASA cares quite a bit about commercial air travel. Remember that the second 'A' stands for Aeronautics. NASA is quite involved in air traffic control research. The FAA's job is usually more current and practical in nature.
  • by nate nice (672391) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:03PM (#21076337) Journal
    Everywhere I've worked has been populated by slackers, incompetents and other people not doing their job fully. Why is surprising then that as it turns out, the airline industry is the same? Is it any surprise that corners are cut, that communication isn't always good and that faulty assumptions are made? It's this where everywhere. IF you're surprised by this, have you ever left your house and worked?
  • by WaltBusterkeys (1156557) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:04PM (#21076355)
    If the purpose of the program (increasing air safety) will be maximized by not releasing this report to the public then NASA is right to not release it. Pilots are very sensitive about their jobs, especially when safety is on the line. If pilots are more likely to report incidents (near-misses and dangerous situations) if they know that the data will only be used internally then not releasing it is the right answer.

    I know that pilots were given anonymity, but there are plenty of incidents that could be recognized by the description (it's not hard to figure out which airlines fly a lot of routes -- Southwest and JetBlue, for example, are the only carriers between a lot of secondary airports).

    If the report is published to the greater world then pilots might not be as forthcoming about future incidents and we might lose a good chance to prevent an accident. Without knowing more about the report, why it was developed, who developed it, and what good it does I can't say for sure whether that's the right answer or not, but it's at least a reasonable answer. There's no conspiracy here, sorry.
  • Re:And still... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Overzeetop (214511) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:06PM (#21076391) Journal
    Because it is (a) too damned expensive to put in rail lines and (b) the current system is slow enough most people can drive to their destinations faster, for less (gas) money.

    If we still had legions of penny-a-day, disposable immigrants and virtually no opposition to laying track through high-value suburbs then we might have the ability to put in light rail. But we don't...on either count...so it will never happen. Rail is phenomenally expensive to put in, and nobody wants it in their back yard. It will never be commercially viable in the US except in dense areas (which, not too surprisingly, is what much of Europe looks like).

    Also, high-speed rail has the same annoying problem as high-speed internet - the last mile is very tough to cover. Airports have that problem, too, but rail is going to have to do _better_ to compensate for the inherent slower travel speeds.

    Besides - more rail traffic means more chances of collision, and I would guess (though I can't back it up) that there have been more US rail crashes in the last 5 years than US commercial airline crashes (including both passenger and freight).
  • by no_pets (881013) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:11PM (#21076463)
    Growing up we had a saying referring to how close something came to almost happening, but didn't ...

    "Almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades."
  • Re:legal? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by norton_I (64015) <hobbes@utrek.dhs.org> on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:26PM (#21076711)
    This has zero relevance to copyright law. They have agreed to collect data on the condition that they only release statistics. Which is what they did. It is legally and ethically fine. Anonymous surveys are an incredibly useful tool, especially when done by people that understand how to do them well, and what the limitations are.
  • by cherokee158 (701472) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:31PM (#21076771)
    Even this study, which the AP was quick to hit the panic button about, states that your odds of dying on any given airline flight is one in 4.5 million. Your odds of dying in any sort of air travel accident in your liftetime (on average...obviously, odds vary according to how often you fly) are about one in 20,000. You odds of dying in a car are about one in a hundred. Your odds of dying in an airliner hijacked by terrorists are about 1 in 55 million. So, obviously, the government is spending billions to combat terrorism, millions on air safety, and hardly anything on automotive safety.

    Does anyone in government ever bother to READ the reports they spend so much time and money writing and classifying?
  • by brusk (135896) on Monday October 22, 2007 @04:50PM (#21077121)
    Conversely, the other cars are mostly not being driven by people who:
    - Drive for a living, with frequent retraining and certification
    - Drive only on well-defined shifts
    - Receive instructions from road controllers
    - Make sure their cars are regularly serviced
    - Have proximity detectors and redundant steering controls in their cars
    - Have co-drivers who can take over if there's a problem

    If you really want to make the comparison, it's between a plane and a bus. Have you been on a Greyhound lately?
  • by caerwyn (38056) on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:05PM (#21077345)
    It takes two idiots to have an accident.

    You're living in a fantasy world. It only takes one- and really, it doesn't even take an idiot. Ever had a blowout on the highway? Would you call yourself an idiot if a piece of debris you couldn't see caused one and sent you into a crash? Didn't think so. Doesn't change the good chance of death you have as a result.

    Oh, and are you always the driver when you're in a car? Never let anyone else drive? Never taken a taxi, or a shuttle bus of some sort?

    The numbers are very simple. Compare the number of plane trips per year and number of plane deaths with the number of car trips per year and the number of car deaths. The plane related incidents are almost statistically unnoticeable in this country. Car crashes, on the other hand, are one of the leading causes of death.
  • by EvanED (569694) <evaned&gmail,com> on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:17PM (#21077523)
    A collusion is a near miss.

    You keep on using this word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

    Please do not use doubletalk; words designed to make bad things sound better

    Please don't quote someone (George Carlin) without citing them. Thank you.
  • by moderatorrater (1095745) on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:26PM (#21077665)

    the answer is firing the self-centered idiots more concerned with their career than with keeping passengers safe.
    It's all well and good when you look at it that way, but for better or worse, people are more concerned about providing for their own families and keeping them safe than they are about keeping strangers safe. Losing a good career can risk putting your family out on the streets, and nobody's going to risk that for close calls and near misses that almost never result in actual accidents. If we see an increase in fatalities because of these incidents, then you can start blaming those who don't come forward. For now, though, they're protecting themselves and their families, and if you think you're going to convince people to do otherwise you're insane.
  • Absolutely true (Score:4, Insightful)

    by WebCowboy (196209) on Monday October 22, 2007 @05:51PM (#21077969)
    My personal experience in the past year:

    * Taken 16 flights
    * Experienced zero accidents or near incidents involving aircraft
    * Witnessed zero accidents or near incidents involving aircraft

    However:

    * Witnessed three auto accidents en-route to airport
    * Witnessed one auto accident en-route to home from airport
    * Taxi driver taking me home from airport narrowly avoided a severe collision

    Flying doesn't scare me in the slightest, but I sometimes find myself nervous when I have to fly. Can you guess from the above experiences why? Safety at the airport in my home town is scrutinised very closely and by all appearances seems to be top notch. On the other hand, the city seems to have no qualms about planning several simultaneous construction projects along a single route, replete with inadequate road markings, constantly changing signal configurations and restricted lanes...which don't mix well at all with drivers who ignore the reduced speed limits and feel that they absolutely must not leave one or more car-length of space between themselves and the vehicle they are following, lest someone has the gall to cut in front of them.

    The article of discussion here stated that there is one in-flight fatality per MILLIONS of departures--I bet more people die golfing than flying and certainly driving is several orders of magnitude more risky. Roads are WAY more crowded than runways and airspace, aircraft are in MUCH better condition and far more reliable than automobiles and pilots are FAR more skilled and competent than even some of the better drivers on the road.

    It seems to me that even if NASA's interviews suggest incidents are under-reported by half that overall air safety is quite good and certainly not worth the alarmist tones by those involved. If there is ANYTHING about air travel we should be concerned about, beyond the hazardous road trip to the airport (if it isn't the construction-infested road to the airport at home it is the dangerously confusing interchanges and signage at other large airports), it is the screwed up state of security at airports. Recent surveys have shown that security gate personnel have been extremely good at confiscating grandma's knitting needles, threatening toiletries and risky bottles of Evian, but when it comes to REAL security they have been almost criminally neglectful.

    For example, in LAX testers placed very obvious-looking bomb components into checked luggage (batteries with wires and circuitry attached, realistic-appearing explosives, etc) and 3 out of 4 times it cleared security. In the recent past air cargo security has been circumvented up to 90 percent of the time. At the airport I take off from regularly a mentally disturbed person scaled the perimiter fence, wandered onto the runways and tried to flag down a commercial jumbo jet preparing for takeoff. In Montreal a reporter crawled under a similar fence, got into an unlocked maintenance truck and started it up. Then he put on a smock and waled right into the CARA kitchen preparing food for the next departing flight posing as an inspector. Nobody questioned his presence, asked for ID or anything.

    Trust me, if you were to be injured or killed during a flight--extremely unlikely as it is, you probably stand a greater chance of it being because some nutjob jihadist checked a bomb, or infiltrated airport security and poisoned the in-flight food, than because of mechanical failure or runway incursions or mid-air collisions or birds meeting their maker inside a jet engine.
  • by jmv (93421) on Monday October 22, 2007 @07:50PM (#21079233) Homepage
    What happens if I drive a big-ass car rather than a tiny-ass POS, so if I hit your tiny-ass POS I live and you die?

    Right, so the solution to make roads safer is that we need to make sure everyone has a bigger than average car, right? Also, no matter how big your car is, if you strike a large enough concrete object or tree, you still die. Is your car also safe against people who run over red lights and hit you on the side?

    Second, the "safety" of airlines is always touted by considering total miles traveled, not TIME IN THE VEHICLE

    When you want to go from point A to point B, and you consider whether to do it by car of by plane, it's the *distance* that's constant, not the time.

    Let's turn the tables, shall we? OK, airlines, if you're going to include teenage hotrod and dead-drunk idiots in your road statistics, I'm gonna include all the private airplanes that are busy dropping out of the sky on a daily basis. Who wins now?

    Airplanes still win -- by a large amount.

    About statistics, they should include everything, both for planes and for cars. "But what about the statistics of people who live on my street have my name and drive the same car as I do?" This is not statistics, this is anecdote.
  • by BillyBlaze (746775) <tomfelker@gmail.com> on Monday October 22, 2007 @08:00PM (#21079321)
    Well if anyone, on any forum, ever said they were a below average driver, you might have a point. But since we all claim to be safe drivers, I can only assume we're both average drivers.

    A few other arguments: plane crashes are not at all unsurvivable. I don't know which tend to be more survivable, and it's somewhat an apples and oranges comparison, but at least I can admit when I haven't done the research. And there are extremely strict requirements for being an airline pilot, and their performance is regularly checked, something you certainly can't say about cars. So those pilots are much better qualified to fly than you are to drive.

    What it boils down to is you feel more confident with a higher-risk activity that gives you more illusion of control. I guess there's nothing wrong with that viewpoint, as long as you don't pretend it's logical.
  • by BillyBlaze (746775) <tomfelker@gmail.com> on Monday October 22, 2007 @08:07PM (#21079381)
    Absolutely. One only needs to read half the replies to this topic to see that the illusion of control is everything to people's perception of safety.
  • Re:Close calls (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 22, 2007 @08:37PM (#21079617)
    but most car accidents don't kill a hundred people.
  • by Herby Sagues (925683) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @12:46AM (#21081365)
    I do not get all this. If we were talking about something with a small sample of events (like flying to space) we could say something like "we are not having as many accidents as the current conditions should lead to, so we are just being lucky" and make a fuss about having to change something. But there are about a hundred thousand flights EACH DAY, so the rate of accidents we see must be, to a minuscule margin of error, what the current conditions warrant. So saying "we are having too many close calls" is silly if we are not having more accidents than what we are willing to accept. The number of close calls is irrelevant when we have a well measured number of accidents to measure risk. And while the ideal accident rate is zero, I'm not willing to pay even 10% more for my tickets to reduce my chances of dying in a plane crash by one thousandth of a percent point (approximately the current chances). And I've lost one friend to a plane crash, so I know it CAN happen. But the chances are so small that it is clearly an acceptable risk. Of course, we need to do what's possible to reduce exceptiosn due to negligence (most accidents are caused by that) but talking about revamping the system or implementing expensive changes based on this is just plain stupid.
  • by Repossessed (1117929) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @02:49AM (#21082043)
    The one that gets me is that I've never actually seen a report involving two planes hitting each other. I've heard of planes going down from hitting mountains, buildings, because of hardware issues, because of bombs, or because the pilot was too drunk to see the ground. But I've never once turned on the news and heard about two planes hitting each other. So while I'm sure it must happen occasionally, focusing on things like that would not make nearly as much sense as focusing on other points of failure. (Like snakes in the cargo hold).
  • by GooberToo (74388) on Tuesday October 23, 2007 @08:23AM (#21083377)
    Hmmm my car seems to be missing the altimiter and compass and "flying mode" options...

    Hehe. I guess that part didn't come out very well. The point being, just like in a car, you follow your lane. For planes, the lane is imaginary but enforced by regulation and/or ATC. By procedure, pilots stay in their lanes. Depending on the type of flying, regulations even specify the width of the lane.

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