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Stephen Stock: Airline close calls

Curious about all the news stories surrounding safety and security at our airports and prompted by Dave Savini’s terrific investigation into safety issues and the lack of tracking of security badges at Chicago airports, I started asking questions about other facets of the industry.

I talked with pilots, air traffic controllers and others about what they perceived as a growing problem of “near misses” among airplanes in our skies. So I set out to find out if their perceptions were correct and could be backed up by data.

My next step was to go to IRE and NICAR's Database Library and request both the FAA Accident and Incidents database and the NASA ASRS (Aviation Safety and Reporting System) database. I also dug into FAA databases and Inspector General’s reports online dealing with runway incursions (which is the FAA’s fancy term includes data for “near-misses” among aircraft on the ground.)

I found the ASRS database to be more useful since it appears to be used much less by news organizations around the country (and therefore the results reported less often) and it appeared to be “more honest” and less “bureaucratic” in what the database contained since the reports were anonymous and voluntary and therefore less of a chance pilots (and others using the system) would want to “gloss over” or “cover up” the reality of what occurred. I realized that there were limitations on this database (including the voluntary part) which meant the incidents might not be inclusive or EVERY near miss that happened. But I planned to do a story of “at least” rather than an exact, precise number of near misses in our area. For example, in one story it might report that there were “at least” eight near misses…instead of “exactly eight” near-misses.

The FAA was not eager to help out with any questions I had regarding this data. In fact, I would go weeks without getting any return call or e-mail. The FAA officials also tried to downplay any trends of an increase in runway incursions and/or near misses by saying it was due to a change in the way they were “counted.” But pilots and others I spoke with said the change actually made the “count” more difficult and less likely “peripheral” events would be included.

Pilots and some air traffic controllers were very hesitant to speak on the record and on-camera about their experiences and ‘eye-witness’ accounts due to fear of retribution from their companies or the FAA itself.

My advice to other journalists is to not give up. Keep working sources in this industry that can be very tight-lipped. Work other stories while also, as Al Tompkins likes to say, gathering string and evidence on this story. It is extremely important. The safety of thousands of aircraft passengers are at stake literally every day. After we began reporting this problem, others, including Dave Savini also began using this data to do stories in their communities. This resulted in Congressional hearings and more open acknowledgment by the FAA that this is a problem that must be addressed.

I would suggest that journalists can contact the NASA ASRS team directly at the headquarters at Ames Research facility in California (their data is more up to date than NICAR’s), and I discovered that several folks there were glad to run data queries for me (as long as it was narrowed to just a few airports rather than entire regions). I used this work to supplement and update the national ASRS data I got from NICAR.

I would also advise journalists to get to know the “lingo” of the industry. Learn what pilots know, how they talk. Call representatives of the local air traffic controllers’ union. Get to know them. This industry has many great stories like this and once you get started you may never stop getting stories about aircraft safety and security.

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