Federal Aviation Administration taps data firm Palantir to help uncover safety issues

WASHINGTON – The Federal Aviation Administration has hired data analytics firm Palantir Technologies to help stitch together disparate databases to improve the agency’s oversight of aviation safety.

The FAA signed an $18.4 million deal to use the Denver firm’s data integration platform, according to a federal filing. The agency agreed to pay $5.8 million for access the first year, with an option to extend for two more years.

The move comes after the FAA has faced sharp criticism from outside investigators, and current and former employees, after deadly incidents in recent years. Federal officials hope the improved data integration will bring “rapid and efficient” decision-making through “monitoring, reviewing, and analyzing aviation safety data,” according to a June 15 federal filing.

Palantir’s system will pull in large amounts of data, including satellite airplane tracking information, emergency air-traffic control data and numerous written reports on mechanical problems from pilots and manufacturers, according to the company.

In a statement, the FAA said the effort will “integrate data from a number of FAA safety-reporting systems to help the agency quickly identify and address potential safety issues.”

Palantir, which has its origins servicing intelligence agencies, has broadened its scope. Clients have included oil giant BP, Fiat Chrysler and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Critics have assailed the firm for providing technology used in Immigration and Customs Enforcement deportation efforts.

Shyam Sankar, COO of Palantir Technologies. Photo: LinkedIn

Shyam Sankar, Palantir’s chief operating officer, said that in using the company’s technology, FAA engineers will be able to spend less time gathering data, freeing them up to search for deeper patterns that can reveal safety concerns.

“I hate to rely on intel analogies, but essentially the challenge here is connecting the dots. The data is there,” Sankar said.

Congressional investigators faulted the agency for “grossly insufficient oversight” after a flawed automated system led to two Boeing 737 Max crashes, first in Indonesia in October 2018 and then in Ethiopia in March 2019. An FAA official said an engine failure on an April 2018 Southwest Airlines flight, which killed a mother of two from Albuquerque, was a “canary in the coal mine” regarding agency oversight.

Congress passed a bipartisan bill in December to strengthen the agency oversight, and the FAA has said it is working to implement the new requirements. The agency’s top safety official, Ali Bahrami, is retiring at the end of the month after facing criticism in Congress and from family members of those killed in the two crashes.

The agency will use Palantir’s data-integration platform for work on “continued operational safety,” an FAA term that generally encompasses airline operations, maintenance and production facilities, and safety standards.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson “has made it a top priority to use data across the agency to achieve the next level of safety,” the FAA said in a statement.

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