NASA report: Your 'get out of jail free' card?

October 16, 2012

pps

Kathy Yodice

Kathy Yodice

  • Attorney, Counsel to AOPA 
  • Former FAA attorney 
  • Has assisted AOPA members for more than 13 years 
  • Pilot since 1994, owns a Cherokee 180 

As a pilot, one of the tools in your flight bag is the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), otherwise known to many as the “NASA report.” It’s a program designed to get valuable information about what is going on in the system from those who are actually using the system. The information helps bring about changes that benefit us all. But the best part is you may possibly “get out of jail free” by sharing the information.

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ASRS enables pilots to identify safety hazards in operating practices, chart terminology, weather briefings, instruments, emergency procedures, medical issues, or any other aspect of flying. By filing a NASA report, you make your concerns known in an anonymous way, so that any disincentive to make the report because of embarrassment or concern about FAA enforcement action is predominantly removed. The information is collected and analyzed by NASA to create valuable data useful in making appropriate modifications to the system to avoid future mishaps.

The program was established in 1975 through a joint agreement between the FAA and NASA after an airliner accident that involved a misunderstanding in operating procedures that was not known to the FAA but was known to pilots. Unfortunately, at the time, there was not an effective way for pilots to make their concerns known to the FAA. It was agreed that NASA, as an impartial third party, would collect and analyze aviation safety reports and would provide that data to the FAA, or other appropriate authorities, so that circumstances that might compromise aviation safety may be remedied. NASA would share the information, but not the source of the information. Once the report is received and NASA enters the objective data into its system, the report and any personally identifying information is destroyed, preserving your anonymity. There are two very important exceptions that prevent NASA from keeping your information confidential; that is, if the report involves an accident or a criminal act, then the report will not be de-identified but will be sent in its entirety to the proper authorities such as the FAA, the NTSB, or the Department of Justice. I recommend that members of the AOPA Legal Services Plan/Pilot Protection Services contact the plan before filing a NASA report that may involve an accident or criminal act.

The form that you complete can be mailed or submitted through the Internet. The printed form has two parts. One part is a strip, on which the reporter records his or her name and address, and when NASA receives the report by mail, this strip is removed, date-stamped, and returned to the reporter. If the report is submitted electronically, a confirmation page is provided and must be printed out before you log off. The other part of the form is a survey that requests detailed information on the event or situation.

The other thing that the ASRS enables pilots to do is to possibly avoid the imposition of a sanction. In FAA Advisory Circular 00-46E, the FAA says that it will waive the penalty in an enforcement action if the pilot can show that he or she filed a timely NASA report and has otherwise satisfied the criteria for a waiver. To qualify for the waiver, the pilot must be able to show that the report was filed within 10 days of the flight event. The identification strip that you receive back in the mail or the confirmation page that you get on the Internet can demonstrate the timely filing. In December 2011, the FAA relaxed this 10-day requirement a little bit by providing that the report be submitted within 10 days of when the pilot became aware or should have been aware of the violation. This change allows the program to apply in those instances where a pilot simply did not know that something had occurred during a flight until the FAA contacts that pilot. Also, to qualify for the waiver, the conduct must have been inadvertent and not deliberate, and it must not involve a lack of qualifications or competency. Finally, the pilot must not have been found in a prior FAA enforcement action to have committed a violation within the preceding five years.

When investigating or bringing an enforcement action against a pilot, the FAA may not inquire about whether a pilot has filed a report. The information you provide is meant to be confidential so that it is not used against you. This allows you to elaborate in the report as much as may be needed to fully describe the safety concern. Do not provide the inspector with the NASA report.

A very common misunderstanding about NASA reports is the belief that a pilot can only file a report once in five years. Not true! A pilot can file as many reports as he or she wants to, for as many concerns that he or she may have about the system. The only restriction that applies is that a pilot may not take advantage of the program to waive the penalty if the pilot has had another enforcement action and been found to have violated the regulations within the preceding five years. File as many reports as you want to file, but we would advise against filing a report that involves an accident or criminal behavior.

Another benefit of ASRS is that you can subscribe to the monthly newsletter Callback, which includes excerpts from de-identified reports with supporting commentary in a “lessons learned” format as well as other features that may be of interest to the pilot reader. You can also get on the ASRS website and search reports filed by pilots and other users.

So, keep this information in mind if something happens before, during, or after a flight that doesn’t seem quite right. It takes a little time and effort to complete a report, but you may be happy that you did, either in helping to make a change that benefits us all or in helping avoid the imposition of a suspension of your pilot certificate. Be safe out there.

To learn more about the program or to enroll, visit www.aopa.org/pps.

Kathy Yodice