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N.Y., Sacramento airports lead in bird strikes

Collisions with birds or other animals have destroyed 28 aircraft since 2000, with New York's Kennedy airport and Sacramento International reporting the most serious incidents, according to the FAA.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Airplane collisions with birds or other animals have destroyed 28 aircraft since 2000, with New York's Kennedy airport and Sacramento International reporting the most incidents with serious damage, according to Federal Aviation Administration data posted for the first time Friday. And the problem appears to be growing.

The FAA list of wildlife strikes, published on the Internet, details more than 89,000 incidents since 1990, costing 11 people their lives. Most incidents were bird strikes, but deer and other animals have been hit on runways, too.

The situation seems to be getting worse: Airplane collisions with birds have more than doubled at 13 major U.S. airports since 2000, including New Orleans, Houston's Hobby, Kansas City, Orlando and Salt Lake City. Wildlife experts say increasingly birds, particularly large ones like Canada geese, are finding food and living near cities and airports year round rather than migrating.

The figures are known to be far from complete. Even the FAA estimates its voluntary reporting system captures only 20 percent of wildlife strikes. The agency, however, has refused for a decade to adopt a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to make the reports mandatory.

Friday's first disclosure of the entire FAA database, including the locations of strikes, occurred largely because of pressure following the ditching of a US Airways jet in the Hudson River after bird strikes knocked out both of its engines on Jan. 15. Within days, The Associated Press asked for the database under the Freedom of Information Act.

All 155 people aboard survived that incident as pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger ditched the powerless jet safely. That plane had at least seven earlier collisions with birds since February 2000, including one in March 2002 at Orlando International Airport when it sucked a red-tailed hawk into an engine during a night takeoff. The plane returned to the airport immediately with a damaged engine.

Damaging strikes drop
The data revealed one positive trend: strikes that caused major damage dropped noticeably in 2007 and 2008. In 2000, pilots reported 178 such strikes; in 2007 there were 125, and in the first 11 months of 2008 only 85. December 2008 numbers are not yet listed.

There was no immediate explanation from the FAA for the decline in major damage, but the agency tightened engine design standards in 2004 to better withstand bird strikes, and more and more airports engage in wildlife management.

Topping the list of airports where planes were either substantially damaged or destroyed by birds since 2000 were John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with at least 30 such accidents and Sacramento International Airport in California with at least 28.

Kennedy, the nation's sixth-busiest airport, is located amid wetlands that attract birds. Ron Marsico, spokesman for the port authority that owns JFK, said it has been protected for years by aggressive wildlife management that includes habitat disruption, fireworks and the "killing of thousands of birds each year." He said the agency recently added a wildlife expert to increase vigilance.

Sacramento International, the nation's 40th busiest, lies beneath the Pacific Flyway used by millions of geese, swans, ducks, cranes, raptors and other birds that migrate with the seasons and stop to feed on crops in the farms that abut the airport. Airport spokeswoman Karen Doron said that in 2007 alone the five airports managed by Sacramento County "used loud noises, distress calls and other techniques to disperse more than 53,000 birds from our runway areas."

At Sacramento International on Friday, Dawn Holliman, a 51-year-old real estate agent from Placerville who was flying to Phoenix, said she felt the odds of being in an airplane struck by birds were relatively low. She was more concerned that the government previously withheld the information.

"It's irritating they don't let the public know about the risks," said Holliman.

FAA argued public couldn't handle truth
The FAA had long argued the public couldn't handle the full truth about bird strikes, so it withheld the names of specific airports and airlines involved while releasing only aggregate data. The agency said the public might use the data to "cast unfounded aspersions" on those who reported strikes, and airports and airlines in turn might make fewer reports.

On Friday, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor cautioned "against comparing one airport's bird strike numbers to another airport. If a certain airport is very diligent in reporting these kinds of events, its diligence could make it appear as if it has more bird strikes than an airport that isn't as diligent."

The most recent fatal bird-strike came in October 2007: A student and instructor pilot died when their twin-engine business plane crashed in Browerville, Minn., after it struck a Canada goose during a night training flight. The plane's left engine had been damaged by a bird strike the day before and was repaired the day of the fatal crash.

All told, pilots reported striking at least 59,776 birds since 2000. The most common strikes involved mourning doves; pilots reported hitting 2,291 between 2000 and 2008. Other airborne victims included gulls (2,186), European starlings (1,427) and American kestrels (1,422).

A single United Airlines 737 passenger jet suffered at least 29 minor collisions with birds and one with a small deer — more than any other plane since 2000. Only one case produced significant damage — when the jet climbed out of Philadelphia International Airport into a flock of gulls at 1,000 feet the night of Jan. 30, 2006. The pilot declared an emergency after one engine sucked in a large gull and began vibrating badly. No one was hurt, but repairs cost the airline $37,000.

That same plane experienced incidents in San Francisco; Salt Lake City; San Jose, Calif.; Houston; Denver; Toronto; New Orleans; Chicago, Spokane, Wash, and most recently in Denver.

Since 2000, reported bird strikes have resulted in five fatalities and 93 injuries. The cost of repairs during that period was estimated at more than $267 million in inflation-adjusted dollars, but many of the incident reports contained no estimate of the repair cost.

The largest trade association of U.S. airlines hastened to note that bird strikes "are, of course, rare events,"

"The vast majority of cases result in little or no aircraft damage," the Air Transport Association of America added.

An overwhelming majority of reported strikes — nearly 16,000 — occurred on approach for landing, the data showed. An additional 20,000 were split nearly evenly among takeoff, landing and climbing.

This week, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood rejected a proposal quietly advanced by the FAA on March 19 to formally make the data exempt from public disclosure — even as other FAA officials were saying the AP would soon get the records in response to its Freedom of Information Act request.

With President Barack Obama promising a more open government and releasing secret Bush administration legal memos about harsh interrogations of terrorism suspects, LaHood said he found it hard to justify the FAA's plan to withhold records about birds at airports.