FAA: Aircraft-Wildlife Strikes Pose Growing Threat

The annual number of collisions between aircraft and wildlife quadrupled from 1990 to 2007 and poses a growing threat to aviation, according to a Federal Aviation Administration report released online Friday.

"Experts within the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Air Force expect the risk, frequency and potential severity of wildlife-aircraft collisions to grow over the next decade," said report authors Richard A. Dolbeer and Sandra E. Wright, wildlife experts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

More than 82,000 wildlife strikes were reported at 1,625 airports, according to the FAA study. New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport topped the list of airports where planes were either substantially damaged or destroyed by birds since 2000, with at least 30 such incidents. Sacramento International Airport in California followed with at least 28.

Kennedy, the nation's sixth-busiest airport, is located amid wetlands that attract birds, while Sacramento International, the nation's 40th-busiest, abuts farms whose crops draw birds and sits along the Pacific Flyway used by migratory birds.

Birds were involved in 97.5 percent of the reported strikes during the 18-year period, while terrestrial mammals were involved in 2.1 percent, bats in 0.3 percent and reptiles in 0.1 percent, according to the data.

Worldwide, collisions between wildlife and aircraft have killed more than 219 people and destroyed more than 200 aircraft since 1988, the report found.

Strikes Said To Be Vastly Underreported

Despite the staggering increase in incidents, the FAA estimates that only about 20 percent of aircraft-wildlife strikes are reported because of differences in voluntary reporting procedures.

The report cited multiple reasons for the growing threat of strikes. Populations of species involved in strikes are on the upswing at a time when the popularity of air travel is growing. In addition, more commercial air carriers are replacing their older three- or four-engine planes to the quieter two-engine aircraft. Some studies suggest that birds may be less able to detect and avoid modern jet aircraft because they have quieter engines.

Friday's release marked the first time wildlife strike data has been publicly disclosed. The subject has captivated the public's attention since January when a US Airways pilot landed Flight 1549 in the Hudson River in January after bird strikes took out both engines.

The FAA had sought to keep the strike records private, but the agency withdrew the proposal after determining the disclosure would not jeopardize aviation safety.

In his official blog, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood reasoned that since the White House recently released Bush-era memos about CIA interrogation tactics for terrorism suspects, the FAA should disclose the data.

"When I saw that the Administration had released the memos on torture, I thought, never in my life did I dream this sort of information would be released," LaHood wrote Wednesday on his Fast Lane blog.

"But, if CIA information like that can see the light of day, there is a new paradigm, and making bird-strike reports available should certainly be a part of that new paradigm."

Minimizing The Risks

The FAA also announced plans to work with the aviation community to find ways to improve on the reporting of bird strikes. Government officials are increasing their emphasis on reporting strikes. Procedures are in place for reporting strikes, and there are detailed instructions for sending debris samples for identification by experts at the Smithsonian Institution.

Airport managers are also teaming with biologists to minimize the risks — including working with communities to limit roosts that develop near airports and considering wildlife patterns in planning land uses, the report said.

The report features stunning, sometimes graphic, photographs of wildlife strikes and threats from wildlife – including one of thousands of starlings descending to a roosting place less than two miles from an unidentified airport in the southern United States. The agency said flocks of birds going to and departing from roosts pose one of the most serious risks to aircraft.

While portions of the newly released information have been available since it was first collected in 1990, the public has not had access to all of the data. The FAA plans to make significant improvements over the next few months to allow people to download the full database.

NPR wire services contributed to this report.

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