Airline safety survey results kept secret to prevent panic. Time to panic.

So concerned that the flying public and airline investors will panic when they learn the apparently panic-worthy results, NASA has fought successfully to keep secret the results of a major safety survey of pilots that it was commissioned to conduct.

They’ve even gone so far as to order a contractor to destroy its copies of the survey data, which was collected more than two years ago.

There’s only one way this keep-them-in-the-dark decision could make sense … and that would be if the results of the survey are even more alarming that than the most alarmist among us could imagine.

Oh, yes, it’s time to panic, all right.

From Associated Press:

NASA gathered the information under an $8.5 million safety project, through telephone interviews with roughly 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots over nearly four years. Since ending the interviews at the beginning of 2005 and shutting down the project completely more than one year ago, the space agency has refused to divulge the results publicly.

Just last week, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to purge all related data from its computers.

The AP has been doing its best to pry the information loose under the Freedom of Information Act but so far with no success.

"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," (NASA associate administrator Thomas S.) 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.

Among other results, the pilots reported at least twice as many bird strikes, near mid-air collisions and runway incursions as other government monitoring systems show, according to a person familiar with the results who was not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Lawmakers have expressed their concern over the NASA decision, with one noting aptly that there is “a faint odor about it all.”

Without having seen the survey results, of course, it would seem as though NASA could be underestimating the public’s fortitude when it comes to bad news about air travel.

While everyone is concerned with airline safety and there have always been fliers for whom it is an all-consuming fear, most travelers these days seem more concerned with the flight delays – the FAA last month released a major plan to reduce East Coast congestion -- the deterioration of creature comforts, seat overbooking, and all-too-revealing security screens at check-in.

And if take-offs and landings are less safe than the public has been led to believe, perhaps it’s not a good idea to add to pilot distraction with advertisements the size of four football fields placed near airports.

NASA says it plans to release its own report on the survey by year’s end.

Given what’s transpired so far, the public will be forgiven for detecting in that release the faint odor of perfume.

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