February 17, 2011

NASA fields growing number of air-safety reports with limited staff

Print More

See related content: Aviation safety reports reveal frequent safety problems at airports, in sky

The number of reports filed with the Aviation Safety Reporting System is soaring, but the funding for the staff handling the reports is grounded.

“We’re hitting records every day in terms of volume,” said Linda Connell of NASA, director of the system. “We could do more if we had more. … We’ve been flat-funded since 1997.”

Connell said all reports are reviewed within three days by a team of about 10 part-time air-safety experts with decades of combined experience as pilots, controllers and other related jobs.

But only 20 percent of the reports are processed fully – which means contacting the person who filed the report, summarizing it and then posting it in the database available to the public. The rest of the reports are not revealed.

The database amassed by NASA is valuable, air-safety experts say, because it allows air-safety professionals to quickly and confidentially report problems that often are the result of systemic flaws – flaws the system seeks to illuminate.

Connell said pilots, controllers and others are comfortable confessing their flubs to NASA because the agency has no power to punish them, yet is knowledgeable about aeronautics and air safety.                                     

In exchange, the system usually allows a pilot or controller who makes such a report to escape punitive action by the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency that licenses pilots and controllers.

 Encouraging frank disclosures is a good trade for the lack of prosecution, Connell said.

“This is a system that is trying to learn from everyday events,” Connell said. “This is an opportunity for people to say . . . there were things going on that probably should be looked at.”

That view is echoed by Bill Voss, president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, an international organization, who like other experts concludes that granting the transgressors protection from FAA sanctions is a good tradeoff for air safety.

“The point really is that in the safety business you can yell at somebody and tell them ever to do it again, but if the circumstances are still the same, the person can make the same or a similar mistake,” Voss said. “You have to look at the whole system. You can’t punish away error.”

Under a punitive approach, “People will pay attention for a while so there will be another oops. You need to pay attention to what leads to ‘the oops.’ ”

The NASA system, Voss said, “is really the backbone of our system now. It’s a reason the system’s gotten safer in the last decade.”

Comments are closed.