Feds to Release Secret Airplane-Bird Collision Data Today

April 24, 2009

The government is opening up its records of tens of thousands of collisions of birds with airplanes, such as the accident that led US Airways Flight 1549 to ditch into the Hudson River.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, in a bow to the Obama administration’s promise of greater openness, abandoned a controversial proposal to keep the records confidential.

LaHood said since the White House felt comfortable releasing memos recently about secret interrogations of terrorism suspects, it was hard to justify the Federal Aviation Administration’s plan to withhold information about birds flying around airports.

“Public disclosure is our job,” LaHood wrote on his official blog. “The sea change in government transparency is beginning, and we are happy to be a part of it.”

FAA said in a statement that it will post the data online Friday.

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 specific information about airports and airlines, making it impossible for the public to learn, for instance, which airports have a severe bird problem and which don’t.

Until now, FAA officials have said it’s 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.

After the US Airways ditching, The Associated Press 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 a proposal in the Federal Register to keep secret information on where and when bird strikes take place. It 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.

Debby McElroy, the council’s executive vice president, said now that LaHood has decided to release the data, the FAA should provide explanatory information “to assist the public and media in using the data responsibly.”

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

Most bird strikes occur during takeoffs and landings when airplanes are flying at lower altitudes. Many bird strikes are unreported, 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.

On 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.

“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.

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.

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