aviation safety

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

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.

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