FAA releases bird strike count

April 24, 2009 7:13:36 PM PDT
On Friday the Federal Aviation Administration revealed its data on bird strikes for the first time, but critics say the numbers are somewhat suspect. A bird strike is what forced Danville pilot Sully Sullenberger to land his U.S. Airlines jetliner in the Hudson River in January.

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Since 1990, there have been more than 1,000 bird strikes reported at San Francisco International and more than 600 each at San Jose and Oakland.

The birds love the wetlands habitat around the airport. The FAA data says nationwide there have been 89,000 incidents with birds or other animals since 1990, 28 aircraft destroyed, and 11 deaths. However, as bad as 89,000 incidents sounds, it is hard to know exactly how to interpret that number.

The newly released FAA data shows airplane collisions with birds have more than doubled at about a dozen major U.S. airports since 2000.

In a worst-case scenario, these bird strikes can bring down a plane. In January, U.S. Airways Flight #1549 lost both engines and had to land on the Hudson after hitting a flock of geese. Still, ABC News polling director Gary Langer says the FAA numbers are not reliable.

"This data specifically from the FAA on bird strikes, leaves much to be desired," says Langer.

Langer says that is because it is a voluntary, non-uniform reporting system. Airlines have different policies, and there's no accounting for possible multiple sources on a single strike.

"So a pilot can hit a bird and have a report. A ground crew can find a bird on the ground and there's a report. A mechanic can find feathers in the engine and there's a report. That's three reports, but one bird strike," says Langer.

Former SFO spokesman and current ABC7 aviation consultant Ron Wilson says in the Bay Area, it's not the geese, but huge flocks of small birds that can be a problem. Wilson took some pictures of aircraft bird strike damage to an American Airlines 747 at SFO in 1970. One engine was blown and pieces of that engine then punctured the fuel tank.

"Starlings love airplanes for some reason. I don't know why. They're not bothered by the noise of the jet engines or anything like that and they hang around the runway," says Wilson.

Wildlife experts say if the FAA's data on increasing strikes is correct, one explanation is that some birds are sticking close to food sources at airports year-round, rather than migrating. And Wilson says the vast majority of bird strikes do not bring down a plane.

"Generally it is not as hazardous as you might think," says Wilson.

Wilson says SFO does do what it can to prevent the bird strikes, such as cut back the grass the birds like to eat close to the runways and put out a high-pitched tone, inaudible to humans, that is supposed to drive the birds away. Still, there's only so much they can do.

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