Vasiliy Baziuk/AP/The Daily Messenger
An August 2006 photo shows a flock of birds, disturbed by a plane's takeoff, taking flight from the side of the runway of the airport in Canandaigua, N.Y.
An August 2006 photo shows a flock of birds, disturbed by a plane's takeoff, taking flight from the side of the runway of the airport in Canandaigua, N.Y. Vasiliy Baziuk/AP/The Daily Messenger
Airplanes landing and taking off at airports in Sacramento, Calif.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Denver have been the most likely in the nation to hit birds, according to an NPR analysis of newly released data from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Two popular vacation-spot airports in Florida also have high rates of damaging bird strikes — Fort Myers and Orlando.
Responding to pressure from the public and news media after a US Airways plane struck birds and then landed safely in the Hudson River in January, the FAA on Friday released its database of voluntary reports of aircraft hitting birds and other animals.
NPR combined the FAA's wildlife-strike reports with airport activity figures to calculate airport "strike rates," an industry measure that is not publicly available and that standardizes bird strikes according to the amount of traffic at an airport.
Since 2000, 28 aircraft have been destroyed by wildlife strikes, killing five people and injuring 93.
The NPR analysis, which looked at some 60,000 wildlife-strike reports over nine years, found:
Biggest Problem Areas: Among the nation's 49 busiest airports, the five facilities with the top strike rates from 2000 to 2008 were the international airports in Sacramento, Kansas City, Denver and Memphis, as well as John F. Kennedy International in New York. At four of those facilities, planes hit wildlife — mostly birds — more than 35 times for every 100,000 flight operations over the nine-year period. Sacramento saw an even higher rate of 66 times per 100,000 flights. The national average for busy airports was 19 strikes per 100,000 flight operations, which include takeoffs and landings.
Damaging Incidents: The list of major airports with the highest strike rates changes somewhat when the rate is based on rarer but more costly incidents that cause damage to aircraft. The top five major airports in terms of damaging strikes were JFK and the airports in Sacramento, Fort Myers, Kansas City and Orlando. Sacramento had 9 damaging strikes per 100,000 flight operations, while those other airports had about 3. Only about 9 percent of wildlife strikes resulted in aircraft damage. The national average for busy airports was 1.4 strikes per 100,000 flight operations.
Strikes Increasing: With growing and adapting bird populations and increasing air traffic, the number of reported wildlife strikes has been increasing over this decade. At the same time, the number of reported strikes that caused major aircraft damage, called "substantial" or "destroyed" in the data, has been dropping. There were 178 such reports in 2000 and a decade-low 125 in 2007. There were 85 major-damage strikes reported in the first 11 months of 2008.
Underestimating The Problem
The wildlife-strike database is believed to greatly underestimate the problem of planes hitting animals.
Because wildlife-strike reporting is voluntary, many more collisions are believed to occur than make it into the database.
A 2005 study by the FAA and the Agriculture Department concluded that fewer than 20 percent of the known strikes were reported to the FAA between 1991 and 2004.
In Sacramento, airport spokeswoman Karen Doron says the airport's location and its exposure to bird travel patterns are two major issues.
"We're surrounded by agricultural land, and we're in the Pacific Flyway" for migratory birds, Doron said.
She said the airport's wildlife management plan includes making sure airport plantings aren't bird-friendly, and harassing birds near flight operations with loud cannons, pyrotechnics and bird distress calls. "We work very hard on this," she said.
Kendra Cross, a biologist who manages the wildlife mitigation program at Denver International Airport, said that while the airport's overall strike rate may be high, its rate of damaging strikes is about average. It might be, she said, that the airport's aggressive awareness program about bird strikes could have led to better reporting of the incidents.
She said that "when you have an increase in awareness, you're going to see your strike rates increasing."
An Imperfect System
Those in government and industry who work on the bird-strike problem caution against using the FAA database to make rigorous comparisons of airports or choose which airport to use.
Some airports are better than others at reporting bird strikes, and bird movements change continuously. One reason some in the air travel industry did not want the data released is a worry that airports that are more diligent in reporting incidents would end up looking bad.
Nonetheless, National Transportation Safety Board Acting Chairman Mark V. Rosenker praised the FAA's decision to release the data.
"The more information [that] is known about the extent of this problem, the better able regulators and others will be to combat a phenomenon that brought down an airliner and possibly a transport-category helicopter earlier this year," Rosenker said.
The NTSB recommended in 1999 that the FAA make reporting of bird strikes mandatory, and it may get its wish. Rosenker said he was pleased to read that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood may make those reports mandatory.
Richard Dolbeer, a now-retired USDA biologist who began the wildlife-strike database in 1995 from a stack of paper records stored in Washington, said he approves of releasing the data to the public.
"I think it's mature enough now that it's time to let people look at it and see what they can find out of it," Dolbeer said.
More Strikes Expected
Worldwide, wildlife strikes have destroyed more than 200 aircraft since 1988 and killed more than 200 people.
Officials with the FAA and the USDA expect the risk from bird strikes, and potentially their severity, to increase over the next decade. In part, that's because both air traffic and bird populations have grown, and birds have adapted to the urban environments near airports.
Biologist Dolbeer, who has spent many years thinking about what happens when airliners and birds collide, suggested that January's spectacular water landing was not so shocking.
"What happened in the Hudson River is not really unexpected, given the events that are occurring every year in numerous situations," he said.