Controversial survey leaked to the media shows major airline safety concerns

by Steve Handlesman
NBC News

An alarming survey of airline pilots says safety problems including runway incursions and near misses are far more common than the government admits.

Even more alarming, that safety survey has been covered up for almost three years.

The frightening picture was painted by 24,000 pilots who answered an anonymous survey.

They reported at least twice as many runway incursions as the Federal Aviation Administration.

Pilots in the survey reported bird strikes, and near mid-air collisions at double the  rate reported by FAA.

That's a growing problem with more planes in the skies.

More inexperienced air traffic controllers in the towers were another concern.

Veteran controllers are retiring at a record pace.

The pilots survey also found many more dangerous last minute landing instructions from controllers than had been reported.

The FAA questions the study's methods and findings.

"The most serious runway incursions this year were at their lowest level ever," the FAA's Bobby Sturgell claimed.

The pilot survey was done for NASA, but NASA shelved the 8.5 million dollar project,  unfinished, in late 2004 and tried to keep the results secret, explaining  that, "release could materially affect the public confidence in, and the commercial welfare of, the air carriers".

That's angering many, including lawmakers.

"It's NASA's job to make aviation safe.  It's not NASA's job to make us feel confident in safety to protect the airlines or airline profits," said North Carolina Representative Brad Miller.

With only one passenger death for every 4.5 million departures U-S air travel remains  safe, even if the NASA pilot survey is still accurate three years after it was done.

NASA now plans to dust off the questionnaires, crunch the numbers, and release the what was learned about airline safety  by the end of this year.