NASA's refusal to publicly release a survey of airline safety is sadly indicative of a sense of confusion many public servants have about who exactly it is they serve.
A letter of refusal, sent to the Associated Press, which had sought the data under the Freedom of Information Act, said the data could harm the air industry and general aviation companies. That's not government's primary concern. Rather, public agencies should be concerned with protecting the public, and that can best be done through information and full disclosure.
The same sort of attitude rears its head on local levels from time to time. It happened in Utah a few years ago when some lawmakers wanted to make restaurant inspections secret in order to protect restaurant owners. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, as they should in this instance.
In most cases, government secrecy is impossible, anyway. The House Science and Technology Committee wants to hold hearings into why NASA is being so secretive. And sources insisting on anonymity have released some of the findings to the AP.
Those sources say the data, collected from 24,000 surveys of pilots over five years, indicate there have been more safety-related problems, generally on the order of near-misses, than otherwise thought.
By some accounts, the data gathered through the surveys are incomplete or difficult to understand. Pilots who identify similar problems may not necessarily be talking about the same thing. A NASA spokesman told the Washington Post that the data were being analyzed.
But telling the public it can't have the information is simply not a valid response. And saying it might harm the airline industry is outrageous.
Data are not likely to hurt air travel. Only catastrophic air disasters can do that, and the fact is this is the safest period on record for commercial air travel in the United States. Since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, only one major crash has occurred, and that one happened shortly after 9/11. That's six years of safe flying, near-misses notwithstanding.
Even the attacks of 9/11 and that crash didn't deter fliers. Commercial aviation is no longer a luxury. It's a necessity for many travelers. Those people deserve all the relevant information they can get, and the public servants denying them should either get out of the way or be removed.