Steve Chapman
It's often been said of Barack Obama that his policies are "data driven" -- meaning that whatever his ideological inclinations, he pays attention to dispassionate analysis of real-world evidence. His approach was a refreshing contrast to George W. Bush and John McCain, with their ostentatious reliance on gut instinct.

This administration gives due deference to nerds. Obama's former budget director, Peter Orszag, once boasted, "Whether it's health care, education or even the war in Afghanistan, the president and his team are big believers in the power of information."

But someone didn't tell the Secretary of Transportation. Ray LaHood is to information what kryptonite is to Superman: In his presence, it becomes powerless.

The former Republican congressman made that clear on a visit to Chicago last week, apparently smarting from a spate of unwelcome publicity about air traffic controllers. Some have been caught dozing off on the job, and others let the first lady's plane get too close to a military jet on its approach to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland.

One suggestion to promote alertness is to let controllers working overnight shifts take naps on their breaks. It was proposed by a joint task force of the Federal Aviation Administration and the controllers union. It's allowed in Germany and Japan. It was suggested by Mark Rosekind, a sleep scientist who serves on the National Transportation Safety Board.

But LaHood couldn't care less. "The one thing we won't let happen is let controllers sleep in control towers," he huffed in a meeting with the Chicago Tribune editorial board. Why not examine the evidence? "I've already decided that's not needed," he retorted. Would anything change his mind? "No."

He does not like to be confused by the facts. It's no surprise, then, to hear the secretary applaud the success of his rule imposing heavy fines on airlines that keep planes on the tarmac for more than three hours awaiting takeoff. In 2009, LaHood announced the regulation, proclaiming that "airline passengers have rights" -- correcting an oversight by the framers of the Constitution, who carelessly omitted those.

Today, he scoffs at critics who predicted the change would lead to more canceled flights. But the evidence vindicates the criticism. The change did reduce the number of planes stranded for more than three hours. But aviation consultants Darryl Jenkins and Joshua Marks found that last year, flight cancellations increased by 42 percent.

Maybe those are a reasonable price to pay to prevent long waits on the runway. But you can't balance the cost against the benefit if you ignore the cost. LaHood, however, has no use for tedious number-crunching.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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