Washington » The Federal Aviation Administration is proposing to keep secret from travelers its vast records on where and how often commercial planes are damaged by hitting flying birds.
The government agency argued that some carriers and airports would stop reporting incidents for fear the public would misinterpret the data and hold it against them. The reporting is voluntary because the FAA rejected a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation 10 years ago to make it mandatory.
The agency's formal secrecy proposal came just after FAA officials said they were going to release the huge database to The Associated Press in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. The FAA's move to expand secrecy also comes as President Barack Obama is promising a more open government.
"To have the government actually chill public access to safety information is a step backward," said James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. "Public awareness is an essential part of any strong safety program."
Sen. Chuck Schumer and fellow New York Democrat, Rep. John Hall, wrote administration officials urging them to abandon the proposal.
"There's no reason to make ... the causes of other accidents public and not this," Schumer said Friday.
"Whether the public should worry is for the public to decide, not FAA," said Rep. Brad Miller, D-N.C.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller. D-W.Va, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, advised the FAA he would review any change to ensure travelers and local communities have enough information "to make informed decisions regarding wildlife strikes on aircraft."
After bird strikes forced a US Airways jet to ditch in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, the AP requested access to the bird strike database, which contains more than 100,000 reports of strikes that have been voluntarily submitted since 1990.
In a Feb. 18 conference call, FAA officials promised the AP the agency would turn over the data within days. Since then, the FAA has said the AP's request for the data under the Freedom of Information Act was "under review."
Last Thursday, the FAA quietly published its proposal to keep the data secret in the Federal Register, the government's daily compendium of new and proposed rules and regulations.
The agency's proposal rested on the assumption that some carriers and airports it regulates would allow concerns about their image and profits to override efforts to keep passengers safe.
"The agency is concerned that there is a serious potential that information related to bird strikes will not be submitted because of fear that the disclosure of raw data could unfairly cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter," the FAA wrote.
"It sounds like the FAA is going back to their early 1990s view that their job is to promote the carriers and look out for their bottom line," said Mary Schiavo, former Transportation Department inspector general. "They were criticized for that and then said they also were concerned with safety, but this sounds like they're reverting to being cheerleaders for the industry."