FAA Must Release Bird Strike Stats: Feds

Public has a right to know how often birds collide with planes, Tranportation Secretary said

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is scrapping a proposal by the Federal Aviation Administration that would make secret its data on when and where birds and airplanes collide.

Transportation Department spokeswoman Jill Zuckman said Wednesday that LaHood believed the public had a right to the information. The nearly 50 public comments in response to the proposal were overwhelmingly opposed to keeping that data secret, she said.

Bird-strike data would be put online soon, likely Thursday or Friday, Zuckman said.

The Washington Post first reported LaHood's decision.

FAA said in a statement released Wednesday that the entire database will be posted online Friday.

Until now, FAA officials had said it was necessary to keep specific information from the public because it might discourage voluntary reporting. The information could also be embarrassing to some airports with higher numbers of bird strikes.

"To keep this information secret when most every other accident type is reported made no sense at all. Secretary LaHood is making the right call to scrap the FAA's proposal," Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said in a statement. Schumer had written to LaHood asking him to overturn the proposal.

Earlier Wednesday, the National Transportation Safety Board released a letter disagreeing with the FAA's plan. NTSB acting chairman Mark Rosenker said in the letter that withholding the data could hinder the ability of independent researchers to compare the level of bird strikes by individual airports and airlines.

Such comparisons are "valid" and might aid safety efforts, the letter said.

"This lack of information could hamper efforts to understand the nature and potential effects of wildlife threats to aviation and hinder the development of mitigations for those threats," it said.

"The safety board believes that public access to all the data in the FAA Wildlife Strike Database is critical to the analysis and mitigation of the wildlife strike problem, and the board strongly disagrees with the FAA's proposal to restrict public access to these data," said the letter.

On Jan. 15, a US Airways jet was forced to land in the Hudson River after hitting a flock of birds shortly after it took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York. The forced landing drew attention to incidents of collisions between birds and aircraft.

Airports and airlines have been voluntarily reporting bird strikes to the FAA for nearly two decades. FAA makes public some of the information, but it has been the agency's practice to withhold airport and airline specific information, making it impossible for the public to learn, for instance, which airports have a severe bird problem and which don't.

The safety board recommended to the FAA in 1999 that it require airlines to report all bird strikes, but the agency chose instead to stick with a voluntary reporting system even though FAA officials acknowledge that only a fraction of bird strikes are ultimately reported.

"The board continues to believe that mandatory reporting of all wildlife strikes would allow a more complete and accurate assessment of the wildlife strike problem and would enhance mitigation efforts," the letter said.

Most bird strikes occur during takeoffs and landings when airplanes are flying at lower altitudes. Many bird strikes are missed, especially those involving small birds and no aircraft damage.

Strikes serious enough to cause damage are usually reported by airline pilots to their company. Airline mechanics sometimes discover bird damage when servicing planes, and airport personnel who keep runways clear of debris frequently recover dead birds.

The primary responsibility for reducing bird strikes falls to airports, which often have extensive programs to discourage birds from nesting nearby.

NTSB board member Kitty Higgins said bird strikes are a significant safety problem that will be difficult for airports to resolve unless they have backing from the public, but that kind of consensus is hard to achieve "if the public doesn't understand the dimensions of the problem."

Higgins also told the AP in an interview that "people who have a concern about this have a right to know" what the data shows about the airports and airlines they use.

"Believe me, this is on everybody's minds even if it wasn't before Jan. 15," Higgins said.

After the US Airways ditching, AP requested access to the FAA's bird strike database, which contains more than 100,000 reports of strikes.

While still processing the AP's Freedom of Information Act request, the FAA on March 19 quietly published its proposal in the Federal Register and provided 30 days for public comment.

One surprise among the public comments FAA received was the response from the primary trade group for U.S. airports. The Airports Council International-North America told the FAA that its member airports were split on the issue so it "cannot take a position either supporting or opposing" the secrecy. But it urged the agency "to provide explanatory information to assist the public and media to use the data responsibly" if it decides against imposing secrecy.

During the comment period, the AP used state public information laws to survey major U.S. airports for records of their communications, if any, with their lobbyists or the FAA about the bird-strike secrecy proposal. None of the airports has released any documents so far that reflect lobbying on the proposal one way or the other.

Two of the nation's 20 largest airports released copies of an April 1 e-mail from the Airports Council alerting some of its internal member committees that the AP was conducting such a survey.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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