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What NASA Won't Tell You About Air Safety

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 7 years ago | from the wtb-better-drugs dept.

NASA 411

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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Close calls (4, Interesting)

BWJones (18351) | more than 7 years ago | (#21075937)

I fly a reasonable amount as a passenger (used to fly small private aircraft as well) on commercial airlines and I've seen quite a few planes that come by shockingly close. I was prepared early enough one day to get a reasonable pic out of a cheap little point and shoot here [utah.edu] of another aircraft in reasonably close proximity, but this is by no means the closest I've seen planes fly to one another. One time flying over Columbia on this flight [utah.edu] we followed *very* close to another large commercial airliner for quite some time. It was hard to get a picture given it was at night with a little point and shoot, but it was close enough for me to see people in windows in-between flashes of lightning. Granted this was in controlled conditions as we were flying almost in formation, but I've also seen planes flash by in close proximity flying in the opposite direction as well. Much closer than the 3-5 mile limit I understood was in place.

Given the increasing amount of air traffic, I would not be surprised to see incidents (not comforting given upcoming travel), but the shocking thing is that the FAA (and the public) is still dealing with a completely antiquated air traffic control system that like other aspects of our national infrastructure is woefully lacking, particularly around large airports.

Re:Close calls (2)

CyberLord Seven (525173) | more than 7 years ago | (#21075995)

"Fall Of The Roman Empire".

Close != close call (5, Interesting)

EmbeddedJanitor (597831) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076093)

If everyone is in their right airspace, even when packed closely, that is not a close call. How far was that jet away? A thousand ft or so? With no landmarks it is very hard to judge how far something is away.

A few years back I was on a flight from Seattle to LAX and with a very chatty pilot. He said something like "In a minute we'll be having a very close look at a Cessna xxx. You won't have much time to see it because it is going at aaa mph and they're going at bbb mph so the closing speed is... Don't worry folks, they are in their lane and we're in ours" and shortly later this plane came whipping past at what seemed like touching distance. Now that was clearly not a close call, but if the pilot had not talked about it we'd probably have thought it was.

Re:Close != close call (1)

foobsr (693224) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076537)

... shortly later this plane came whipping past at what seemed like touching distance. Now that was clearly not a close call, but if the pilot had not talked about it we'd probably have thought it was.

Because the pilot cared to talk about it, that was clearly a close call.

CC.

Re:Close != close call (5, Interesting)

dafradu (868234) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076593)

Thats true. 1000 feet or 300 meters is the normal distance aircrafts must have between them.

This video shows two aircrafts 1000 feet apart passing by each other: http://br.youtube.com/watch?v=xpYD0higmxk [youtube.com]

Re:Close calls (5, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076149)

There is really no need for this alarmism.

I am a general aviation pilot with about 800 hours and nothing you saw is the slightest bit out of the ordinary. The "3-5 miles" is the lateral separation for two aircraft in cruise flight at the same altitude. As long as you're separated vertically by at least 1,000' (which the first aircraft pic clearly was - probably 3000' above you, in fact), there is no lateral separation requirement at all. Many times, I'll fly directly under or over a commercial jet, which is fine since the controller knows we're at different altitudes.

Your second picture pretty clearly shows you on approach to an airport - SLC. Salt Lake City has parallel runways (see http://www.airnav.com/airport/SLC [airnav.com] ) and under certain conditions, to improve airport capacity, simultaneous parallel approaches are allowed. That is, two aircraft simultaneously landing on parallel runways. This is perfectly safe because the aircraft aren't just randomly cruising around; they're being held to extremely tight lateral guidance by the runways' Instrument Landing Systems (ILS) so they don't conflict.

And, finally, at any time, during any phase of flight -- as long as you're not in a cloud -- a controller can always have the following conversation with a pilot:

ATC: You have traffic, 11 o'clock, 4 miles, 8,000 feet, moving northbound. Report him in sight.
Pilot: Traffic in sight.
ATC: Roger, maintain visual separation with that traffic.

Now the two airplanes can get closer than the 5 mile limit; the pilot has reported the other airplane is in sight and is doing "see and avoid" -- basically, the same way you avoid hitting other cars when you're driving.

I hope this has been informative enough for you to, please, stop posting alarmist blog entries saying "Oh my god, look at that plane, it's way too close!" Really, these are all quite normal operations.

Re:Close calls (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076375)

Did nobody else ever play Kennedy Approach [wikipedia.org] as a kid?

It's just as you say. You'd often have a planes converging on a single 2D coordinate, but as long as you kept 1000' separation in their altitudes, they would continue on their merry way without the dreaded 'CONFLICT' warning on your screen (and lowering your rating/score).

Re:Close calls (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076447)

Thank you for posting this. That chump has posted his blog here a few times and it is really tiring and very alarmist. The problem is people forget that without landmarks distances are almost immeasurable with the human eye. People need to stop panicking and realize there is tons of money into this industry and the number of in air collisions between a commercial craft and any other airliner is either 0 or damn near it when compared to the number of successful flights.

Re:Close calls (4, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076231)

I believe the limit is usually 3 miles horizontally OR 1,000 feet vertically, presumably because a pressure-based altimeter is less prone to failure than an electronic lateral navigation system.

Completely right (2, Informative)

Lanoitarus (732808) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076329)

Our AC friend above is 100% spot on-- vertical seperation allows much closer distances, both because altimeters are far more accurate and because vertical position doesnt change as quickly (think about it-- A jet can cover several miles within a pilots reaction time since it is traveling at ~600 mph-- Even if the engines failed completely, it would take longer to lose altitude.)

Re:Completely right (1)

Volante3192 (953645) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076443)

Also, when travelling laterally, isn't there something about not travelling in the first plane's wake?

Remember hearing something about Airbus being annoyed because the EU equivalent of the FAA required planes travel farther behind the A380 over concerns its wake would be larger. Not sure how much of that is in the 3 mile gap though.

Re:Close calls (0)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076317)

I have had one close call. I saw a biz jet on a crossing vector. It was close enough that both pilots decided to maneuver to avoid. How closer where we. Well I could see that there where two men in the cockpit of the bizjet so it was way too close. The wost was we where descending and where in a dirty configuration and he was climbing. All in all I would say where where both lucky.

That picture is not a safety issue (4, Informative)

iamlucky13 (795185) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076495)

I was under the impression that the FAA had minimum distances defined between any similarly performing aircraft as approximately 3-5 miles, and I'll tell you that some of these aircraft were significantly closer than that.

The airliner in that picture on your blog is not violating any recommended practices. The 3-5 miles is typical following distance for airliners on the same path, which allows time for potentially dangerous wake turbulence to dissipate. For planes whose paths do not intersect (in the 3-D environment, not merely 2-D), much, much closer passes can safely occur. The plane you show was at least 1000 feet higher than your own, a standard separation for planes awaiting landing clearance, and not on the same flight path.

Whatever may be in NASA's report (I suspect it's mostly the collisions it refers to are mostly taxiway and tarmac incidents), does not change the fact that the airlines are still the safest way to travel by a large margin. Over the past 20 years, your odds of dying in a commerical airline accident were about 1 in 5 million per flight (multiply by number of flights you take in life for net risk). Your odds of dying on the road are about 1 in 50 (net risk).

This really that bad? (5, Insightful)

hcmtnbiker (925661) | more than 7 years ago | (#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.

Re:This really that bad? (1)

iron-kurton (891451) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076095)

100% agreed. This sounds like fear mongering by politicians or other talking heads.

Re:This really that bad? (2, Interesting)

moderatorrater (1095745) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076179)

Agreed. The methodology may be flawed, and there might be *potential* problems coming up, but there certainly aren't any immediate problems in aviation safety right now. As I remember it, the commercial aircraft in the US have less than one crash a year, which is a phenomenal record by any measure. While I appreciate that reports like these are done to make sure that no shits making its way to the fan, there's certainly not a problem right now.

Re:This really that bad? (5, Insightful)

WaltBusterkeys (1156557) | more than 7 years ago | (#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:This really that bad? (1)

plague3106 (71849) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076691)

Um, excuse me? How will having this information have an impact one way or the other on air safety? I doubt it would have any impact whatsoever. It COULD impact how much people fly, if they are unreasonably scared. Personally, that's a larger problem than anything else; people irrationally getting scared over every little thing. I'd rather they calm down and think clearly.. then we also wouldn't be throwing rights away for "security."

Re:This really that bad? (2, Insightful)

Puls4r (724907) | more than 7 years ago | (#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...)

Re:This really that bad? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076483)

But isn't that true about everything? If people paid attention driving, flying, walking, and listening wouldn't everything be better too? However, it also helps to be educated, not the pretend regurgitation oh I must know it now type of education, and have the ability to think as well.

Re:This really that bad? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076685)

the flying part is the safe part. However, taxing around the airport is not safe.

The really dangerous part about air travel.... (4, Insightful)

nweaver (113078) | more than 7 years ago | (#21075943)

The drive to the airport.

Flying is so much safer than driving to the airport it is not even funny.

Re:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (1)

mcmonkey (96054) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076057)

Flying is so much safer than driving to the airport it is not even funny.

1) Say's who? The folks who don't want eveyone to know just how 'safe' air travel is?

2) And does that mean there's no point in trying make it safer? Why update decades-old computers? Heck, why even train new ait traffic controlers? Everything's cool until flying is more dangerous than driving, right?

Re:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (3, Insightful)

cmowire (254489) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076101)

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:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (1)

griffjon (14945) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076257)

What about relinquishing an increasing number of civil rights to the "Papers, please" crowd at Security?

Re:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076467)

The fact is theres about .8 deaths per 100 million miles traveled by car and only .02 deaths per 100 million miles by air. The fact it you are more likely to die in your normal commute to work each week then you are flying from New York to London.

Re:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076083)

Also:

Airline food (when you can get it)
In-flight movies (once saw Dirty Dancing Havana Nights on both legs of a 1 stop flight from Vegas)
Senators in the mens room

Re:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (2, Funny)

R2.0 (532027) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076157)

And soon:

Cardiac arrest from blood pressure spike due to (non-gender-specific) bitch on cell phone
In flight pummelling received by (non-gender-specific) bitch on cell phone

Oh, yeah. (5, Funny)

Estanislao Martínez (203477) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076279)

Airline food (when you can get it)

Important hint: DON'T PICK THE FISH.

Re:Oh, yeah. (1)

sconeu (64226) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076543)

Yes, now I remember. I had lasagna.

Re:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076111)

The difference is that when you're driving you have some ability to dodge the other cars, if necessary, as opposed to being a passenger with no say in the matter. But I do agree that the flying part is safer than the driving part, in general.

Now if you'll excuse me I'm off to the airport... and I'm not reading the article until I get back.

Lies, Damn lies, and Statistics (1)

JeanBaptiste (537955) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076335)

While that may be true regarding distance traveled, its about the same for time spent traveling.

Re:Lies, Damn lies, and Statistics (1)

2short (466733) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076499)

So, spending an hour traveling 60 miles on the ground in a car is roughly as dangerous as spending that hour in a plane hurtling across hundreds of miles at thousands of feet up in the air.

Did you point this out to make me feel better about the safety of car travel?

Re:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076395)

>>Flying is so much safer than driving to the airport it is not even funny.

This is a common misconception. If you were to spend the same amount of time flying as you do driving, the two modes of transportation are equally as likely to result in a fatal accident.

Re:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (1)

petgiraffe (539721) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076489)

This is a common misconception. If you were to spend the same amount of time flying as you do driving, the two modes of transportation are equally as likely to result in a fatal accident.

However, you sure cover a lot more distance flying then the same time spent driving. So are you suggesting that cars would be just as safe as passenger jets for the same distance travel led if we all drove 500+ mph?

Re:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (1)

justamember (1153207) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076441)

"Flying is so much safer than driving to the airport it is not even funny."

That isn't an argument that aviation is safe enough, that's an argument that driving isn't.

Re:The really dangerous part about air travel.... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076531)

That, and pilots who crash receive the death penalty. Helps to motivate them not to.

Is it really NASA who is witholding info? (5, Insightful)

Irvu (248207) | more than 7 years ago | (#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.

Freedom of Information (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076059)

If this doesn't call for exercising the Freedom of Information Act, I don't know what does. We payed that $8.5M for this study and just because someone doesn't like the results doesn't mean we're not entitled to see them.

Re:Is it really NASA who is witholding info? (3, Interesting)

richdun (672214) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076075)

Not to mention that as a matter of jurisdiction, this is much more an FAA area than a NASA one. NASA has been interested in air safety to help with studies into personal air vehicles (the "virtual" lanes in the sky idea, for instance), but if airliners are having near-misses and such, that's FAA-regulated air traffic controllers or airport traffic patterns in question. I could see a certain interagency memo or a call to a higher-up in the administration from the FAA asking that this be kept quiet.

Re:Is it really NASA who is witholding info? (2, Informative)

A Unique Nick Name (921046) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076277)

I suspect the info is coming from the NASA reports we pilots fill out when there is a near-collision or runway incursion which when filed guarantees we won't be subject to any legal action from the FAA. Because of that protection they probably can only release the statistics and no more info than that. The theory is that if pilots and controllers report these incidents as much as possible, more can be done to make sure they don't happen in the future. Otherwise everyone would be worried about possible suspension of their license and wouldn't tell anyone about it.

Re:Is it really NASA who is witholding info? (3, Funny)

Otter (3800) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076541)

Not to mention that as a matter of jurisdiction, this is much more an FAA area than a NASA one.

Only if these "near misses" are with terrestrial craft, which I think we all realize isn't the case [ufologie.net] .

He should have never stopped snorting coke (5, Funny)

Pojut (1027544) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076011)

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.


"When two planes almost collide, they call it a near miss....IT'S A NEAR HIT! A collision is a near miss...::BOOM::...look, they nearly missed."

Re:He should have never stopped snorting coke (2, Insightful)

moogied (1175879) | more than 7 years ago | (#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.

Re:He should have never stopped snorting coke (1)

Admiral Justin (628358) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076177)

Damn you for quoting Caerlin before me.

But it works better with the last bit, anyway.

"look, they nearly missed... BUT NOT QUITE!"

Re:He should have never stopped snorting coke (1)

Pojut (1027544) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076237)

Actually, I was hoping someone would chime in with the last line as a response... Kind of a "I know where that's from" sorta thing 8D

I haven't been in one collision yet (2, Funny)

Lucas123 (935744) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076033)

But I'll let you know when I am.

meh (4, Insightful)

DirkGently (32794) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076035)

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.

Re:meh (1)

Notquitecajun (1073646) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076297)

My response to the hot dog thing is that I find it interesting that they can put that stuff into edible form. Sometimes. Just as my amazement is at looking at something as massive as a C-5 Galaxy or 777 and wonder how the heck that thing can get off the ground.

Re:meh (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076585)

You sold yourself too cheaply. You should've held out for the steak.

Watch the Sky (2, Informative)

lamarguy91 (1101967) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076053)

I live within 10 miles of a major airport, and within 3 miles of a smaller "business" airport. Three nights ago I was outside on my balcony watching the sky and saw two planes coming from opposite directions converging towards one another. At first I was thinking, "Hmmm, those look like they're at relatively close altitude.". This quickly turned into "Are they really supposed to be flying like that?".

Very quickly thereafter, the planes are close enough that I realize one of them is a jumbo jet and the other is a small business commuter plane.

From what I could see on the ground, the planes passed through what appeared to be the same spot in the sky within about 4 seconds of one another. I was utterly astounded. Could it be that they really weren't communicating because they were from different airports? The biggest surprise is that there weren't any other planes in the area that I could see, so what was the need for their paths to converge like that?

Re:Watch the Sky (2, Insightful)

Kazrath (822492) | more than 7 years ago | (#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.

Re:Watch the Sky (1)

R2.0 (532027) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076201)

Not to mention a difference in altitude that was probably measured in miles.

Re:Watch the Sky (1)

T-Bone-T (1048702) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076417)

The airport they are from isn't that important, it is the airspace they are currently in that is.

Re:Watch the Sky (1)

Volante3192 (953645) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076603)

So, you have a small plane navigating at an airport 3 miles from you. Then you have a big plane taking off 10 miles away.

So we've got Seven Miles of distance between those airports. Chances are that spot you thought they both went through had 7 miles of gap or more on the Z axis which you couldn't see from your vantage.

From what I could see on the ground, the planes passed through what appeared to be the same spot in the sky within about 4 seconds of one another. I was utterly astounded.

So am I. Look up parallax.

And still... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076063)

Amtrak still doesn't get the respect it deserves. If flying is so unsafe, why is this country so light on high-speed rail? The best we have is Acela, and it's poorly funded and slower than tilt trains in Europe.

Re:And still... (2, Insightful)

Overzeetop (214511) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076391)

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).

Re:And still... (1)

Geak (790376) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076621)

Because it is (a) too damned expensive to put in rail lines
Not to mention difficult. Imagine trying to make all those rail lines stay up at 40,000 feet so the planes can stay on them and not collide with each other!

My question is (2, Insightful)

sdkramer (411640) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076067)

why is NASA doing this? Isn't this the domain of the FAA and NTSB?

Re:My question is (3, Informative)

Alotau (714890) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076259)

The second 'A' in NASA is Aeronautics. There is a lot of original research in all facets of aeronautics going on at NASA including air traffic control/management. To oversimplify: the FAA is generally more concerned with near term Air Traffic Control and NASA is generally more interested in the long term (2020+).

Re:My question is (1)

IANAAC (692242) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076435)

There is a lot of original research in all facets of aeronautics going on at NASA including air traffic control/management.

And guess who actually controls the skies over the US? It's not NASA.

Re:My question is (1)

Alotau (714890) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076645)

And guess who actually controls the skies over the US? It's not NASA.
The question was why NASA was doing this research. The answer was because that's part of their job. They produce research that leads to tools that help prevent collisions. The FAA ultimately has to decide to implement/use them. Again, simplifying quite a bit.

Congressman commenting on "odor"? (4, Funny)

R2.0 (532027) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076089)

"'There is a faint odor about it all.' "

Isn't that like Pigpen remarking on someone's bathing habits?

It's official: Embarassment == Security Threat (4, Insightful)

RobertB-DC (622190) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076137)

"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!

Re:It's official: Embarassment == Security Threat (1)

Solandri (704621) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076309)

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".
That's an interesting ethical dilemma. In this case, the public tends to overreact to news of air safety. So do you do the intellectually honest thing and go public with the data, knowing the public will overreact, causing more of them to die because they chose to drive instead of fly? Or do you censor the data in the interest of economics and public safety?

Re:It's official: Embarassment == Security Threat (1)

RobertB-DC (622190) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076465)

That's an interesting ethical dilemma. In this case, the public tends to overreact to news of air safety. So do you do the intellectually honest thing and go public with the data, knowing the public will overreact, causing more of them to die because they chose to drive instead of fly? Or do you censor the data in the interest of economics and public safety?

I don't see a dilemma, actually. In an open culture such as ours used to be, you release the data, period. Once you start censoring data in the interest of "stability", you've taken a Great Leap Forward [wikipedia.org] towards establishing your first Five-Year Plan [wikipedia.org] .

Re:It's official: Embarassment == Security Threat (1)

noidentity (188756) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076665)

How about this: the witholding of that is affecting my confidence. Uh oh, infinite regress time!

For The Non-Pilots (5, Informative)

ryanisflyboy (202507) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076141)

NASA keeps a voluntary database of incidents/accidents and safety concerns from pilots. The idea is that it can be totally anonymous. They want pilots to feel free to report safety concerns without fear of being fired or discriminated against by their current airline. The database is fully on-line and you can search it. Look at the facts: The American airline industry completes thousands of flights every day without a single issue. That is friggen AMAZING! The ATC has a very hard job, and they do it well. A big part of why things are so safe is the over-zealous approach pilots (most pilots) take to safety. There are several different ways to report problems. If you are at a major airport and break the rules (in a small plane for example) you can usually expect an FAA inspector to meet you at the tarmac to pull your ticket on the spot. If you don't take safety seriously word gets around fast. Your fellow pilots don't appreciate it.

http://asrs.arc.nasa.gov/ [nasa.gov]

This program has been going for years and years. It helps make the skies above you safer. If there is an increase it is likely due to one of the major trends affecting aviation today. Fewer airports, more airplanes with smaller passenger sizes, more flights, younger pilots, etc. I highly doubt NASA is trying to deep-six some scary fact, they probably just didn't want to pay to deal with the fallout from a service that costs them dollars. They do it for free in the interest of safety. They should be applauded for their years of service to the aviation industry.

Keep in mind that the ASRS is in ADDITION to the NTSB and FAA programs for saftey (which also has searchable online-database).

legal? (3, Interesting)

baudbarf (451398) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076159)

I'm often mistaken, so this may be no exception, but isn't NASA's work in the public domain since it is a federal agency? How can they refuse to release to the taxpayers the results of taxpayer funding? At least the military has the excuse of "national security"... what is NASA's explanation for this failure to deliver on a service they billed us for?

Re:legal? (3, Insightful)

norton_I (64015) | more than 7 years ago | (#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.

Isn't this report the FAA's job? (1)

Isaac-Lew (623) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076163)

See the subject - why would NASA care about commercial air travel? (Can't RTFA yet, still at work).

Re:Isn't this report the FAA's job? (2, Insightful)

Alotau (714890) | more than 7 years ago | (#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.

Re:Isn't this report the FAA's job? (1)

Opportunist (166417) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076385)

Maybe it would have been harder to censor a report from the FAA if it doesn't support the official doctrine.

Is NASA really the best spokesman? (1)

Ukab the Great (87152) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076187)

NASA: "We need to take a minute or two away from flying vehicles filled with millions of tons of explosive liquids to lecture you about air safety. Cue the film, Biggles..."

They also dont want you to know this... (5, Interesting)

JackMeyhoff (1070484) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076233)

... http://www.google.com/search?ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8&sourceid=navclient&gfns=1&q=kapton+wiring+problems [google.com] Kapton wiring by DuPont is a silent time bomb in most COMMERCIAL aircraft. This wiring is BANNED in MILITARY and NASA equipment but YOU fly surrounded by it not knowing the dangers.

Definition of a "near miss?" (2, Insightful)

Goldarn (922750) | more than 7 years ago | (#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."

Aren't actual accidents the issue? (5, Insightful)

pnagel (107544) | more than 7 years ago | (#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?

Re:Aren't actual accidents the issue? (1)

LWATCDR (28044) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076445)

"Isn't the safety of an activity determined by the number of actual accidents, and not by the number of near-accidents?"
Not in civil aviation or any other very serious activities. When an air craft gets with in a certain distance then it is a accident. It isn't supposed to happen so a mistake was made and needs to be fixed.
If you must think of it like driving then would you say that a driver that constantly runs red lights but doesn't actually hit anyone is a "safe" driver? Think of near misses as moving violations if you must.

How to take down a modern airliner (0, Offtopic)

JackMeyhoff (1070484) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076281)

ELECTRICAL fire. With all these IN-FLIGHT entertainment and goodies, its easier day by day to cause havoc on an air plane. Just rip open or screw open the in-flight ENTERTAINMENT center, tv or whatever and short circuit it.

Re:How to take down a modern airliner (1)

jandrese (485) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076477)

The problem with that is that those in-flight entertainment systems are probably designed to be economical with power (they don't want to heat up the seats, plus planes have a power budget to consider) and it's pretty damn hard to start a fire with seat material using only 5v at 200mA.

Re:How to take down a modern airliner (1)

JackMeyhoff (1070484) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076511)

Perhaps not but the ensuing panic as smoke is seen in the cabin and the registering of electrical fault may force a landing.

Re:How to take down a modern airliner (1)

Bob-taro (996889) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076521)

ELECTRICAL fire. With all these IN-FLIGHT entertainment and goodies, its easier day by day to cause havoc on an air plane. Just rip open or screw open the in-flight ENTERTAINMENT center, tv or whatever and short circuit it.

... unless the designers have employed some of those high-tech "fuse" thingies. Maybe you'd be better off just using your laptop battery.

That Study Can't Be Right (0, Redundant)

FireIron (838223) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076287)

It disagrees with my preconceived beliefs, so it must be fraudulent and biased.

Hmmm (0, Redundant)

eniac42 (1144799) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076295)

Yeh like I totally.. Whoa! What the heck was that!?

I personally think its a metric/imperial problem..

Consider all the near misses in your car (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076305)

Consider all the near misses in your car. And then the number of collisions, deaths, mames, decapitations, and whatnot. If planes and trains almost hitting each other is scary, what is it when automobiles do it hundreds of times a day?

Is anything really safe? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#21076325)

How many close calls do you have while driving, walking? How often do Pharmacists or Doctors almost screw up but catch themselves? I write code, and I know there are probably a few times a month where I realize "Hey, that might be a big security hole if I don't close it!" or worse "That IS a big security hole! I need to close that before someone else finds it." What's the expression? Close doesn't count except for horseshoes?

Every job I've worked.... (3, Insightful)

nate nice (672391) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076337)

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?

Real Reason for Incident Increase... (5, Funny)

quite_sick (1145851) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076349)

...inexplicable rise in the number of home-made Nigerian helicopters and Sputniks crowding the airspace.

Let me get this straight... (2, Funny)

flaming error (1041742) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076367)

> pilots said airlines were unaware how frequently safety incidents
  > occurred that could lead to serious problems or even crashes,

  > The survey's purpose was to develop a new way of tracking
  > safety trends and problems the airline industry could address.

  > revealing the findings could damage the public's confidence
  > in airlines and affect airline profits.

So NASA, worried the industry could be overlooking some bugs, initiated a code review with the intent of creating a bug-tracking system. Four years and $8.5 million later, the project presumably completed, they didn't release - because it would expose bugs?

I wouldn't have thought it was NASA's role to cover-up airline industry problems. I'd expect airline industry non-sequitors like this to have been performed by the FAA and NTSB. NASA should restrict itself to losing their own design plans, and occasionally mucking up english-metric conversions.

Bad use of modeling (1)

rsclient (112577) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076399)

Look -- there's a time and place for modeling things, and a time and place to not. In particular, you should make a model of how risky something is only if you don't already have lots of data (because the model is essentially providing you with the data that you otherwise don't have).

But in America we have lots of great data on exactly how often planes crash. For one thing, airplane crashes are new. For another thing, detailed and consistent statistics are kept. And this very plentiful, real-world data says that planes flying too close aren't really a problem.

They don't say because there's nothing to tell (1)

cstec (521534) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076455)

No matter how many perceived 'near misses' there are, a near miss is still a miss. That is, a non-accident. The statistics for air safety haven't changed at all, and they have been fully disclosed and discussed ad nauseum.

Reporting a near miss does not increase the odds that you will be in an accident. What NASA is doing is expanding the research to include non-accident items. The only problem here is the media re-interpreting the data for their own sensationalist benefit.

Growing up we had a saying... (2, Insightful)

no_pets (881013) | more than 7 years ago | (#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."

the truth will set you free (1)

jollyreaper (513215) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076487)

The truth will set you free, but it's gonna piss you off first.

I wish I could find this sort of thing shocking, unbelievable, impossible, but it's sadly expected from this administration. Remember them lying about the safety of the air down at Ground Zero after the attack?

I'd seen disaster special after disaster special talking about how vulnerable NOLA was before Katrina hit. It hits and holy shit, nobody'd ever thunk it! I've seen report after report about how antiquidated our ATC system is and how it needs to be fixed. I used to think that it would take a big disaster and then things would be straightened out. I look at the New Olreans recovery effort and realize no, not even a disaster with massive loss of life will prompt change in these times. We're going to see two fully loaded jumbos crashing and burning from a midair and five years later, the system will just be five more years out of date.

Runway incursions (2, Informative)

CPNABEND (742114) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076527)

There was an article in Air & Space magazine in the last month or so about runway incursions (being in the wrong taxiway, or worse on the wrong active runway, or crossing when you shouldn't. It was a pretty scary article, and it discussed the things they are trying to do to make sure the pilots turn when they should, and do not when they shouldn't. Bottom line, is the FAA has spent a lot of money and time, but hasn't got a good solution yet...

Why did NASA do this anyway? (1)

gurps_npc (621217) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076557)

Yeah, I know the first "A" stands for Aeronautics, but hey, isn't this an NTSB issue? (National Transportation Safety Board?)

Aren't they the people that typically investigate aviation accidents and make reports?

I don't think NADA should have anything to do with this.

near-collisions (1)

MM_LONEWOLF (994599) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076561)

and thats just with planes. what with all those ufos out there, it's surprising as many planes land as they do.

Well.... (1)

argStyopa (232550) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076595)

Hyperbole aside, number of passenger miles http://www.bts.gov/publications/white_house_economic_statistics_briefing_room/october_2005/html/air_revenue_passenger_miles.html [bts.gov] has nearly doubled since 1992, yet number of fatalities per year has gone down RADICALLY (http://www.ntsb.gov/aviation/Paxfatal.htm - wow was '85 a bad year).

I dunno, seems like it's getting safer to me.

crisis in the making (2, Interesting)

MM_LONEWOLF (994599) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076601)

add this to the fact that air controllers still use equipment that employs vaccuum tubes, which have an opportunity to break down thousands of time per second, we've got a possible crisis on our hands. I'd to think what would happen if all air traffic control was lost at JFK or any other international airport.

Close calls on the roadway (1)

RollingThunder (88952) | more than 7 years ago | (#21076629)

Just imagine how fast the 32-bit ID pointer would roll over on a database for close calls between cars.... Somehow I suspect that even with the number of close calls in the air and on the runway, the planes are safer per capita than cars.
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