Aviation Hazard: Bird Collisions Double Since 2000 at Major U.S. Airports

April 27, 2009

Airplane collisions with birds have more than doubled at 13 major U.S. airports since 2000, and New York’s Kennedy airport and Sacramento International report the most incidents with serious damage, according to Federal Aviation Administration data released for the first time Friday.

The FAA list of wildlife strikes, published on the Internet, details more than 89,000 incidents since 1990, including 28 cases since 2000 when a collision with a bird or other animal such as a deer on a runway was so severe that the aircraft was considered destroyed.

But even the FAA estimates that its voluntary reporting system captures only about 20 percent of all wildlife strikes and some airports and airlines do a better job of reporting than others.

Meantime, wildlife experts say the problem is growing as more and more birds, particularly large ones like Canada geese, have found the food to live near cities and airports year round rather than migrating.

Eleven people have died in airplane collisions with birds or deer since 1990, the data also show.

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 were not yet listed. There was no immediate explanation for the decrease from the FAA, although the agency tightened engine design standards in 2004 to better withstand bird strikes.

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 accidents. Kennedy, the nation’s sixth-busiest airport, is located amid wetlands that attract birds, and Sacramento International, the nation’s 40th-busiest, abuts farms whose crops draw birds and sits along the Pacific Flyway used by migratory birds.

The first disclosure of the entire FAA bird strike database, including the first-ever release of the locations of strikes, occurred largely due to pressure after the dramatic ditching of a US Airways jet in the Hudson River when bird strikes knocked out both of its engines on Jan. 15. Days later, The Associated Press requested release of the database under the Freedom of Information Act.

All 155 people aboard survived when pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger ditched the powerless jet into the Hudson without breaking it up. The most recent fatal bird-strike incident came in October 2007: A student and instructor pilot died when their small, twin-engine business plane crashed in Browerville, Minn., after it struck a Canada goose during a night training flight. That plane’s left engine had been damaged by a bird strike the day before and was repaired the day of the fatal crash.

Reports doubled at some of the nation’s busiest airports, including New Orleans, Houston’s Hobby, Kansas City, Orlando and Salt Lake City.

Lovell Field, in Chattanooga, Tenn., registered the greatest increase in wildlife strikes, going from four reported incidents in 2000 to 55 in 2008 — a 1,275 percent increase.

The airport in Memphis, Tenn., also reported a surge in bird strikes, up 74 percent.

All told, pilots reported striking at least 59,776 birds since 2000. The most common strike 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 accident involving a small deer — more than any other plane since 2000. In only one case was damage significant, when the jet climbed out of Philadelphia International Airport into a flock of gulls flying at 1,000 feet the night of Jan. 30, 2006. The pilot declared an emergency after at least one engine sucked in a large gull and began vibrating badly. No one was hurt, but the airline spent about $37,000 in repairs.

That same plane has experienced incidents in San Francisco; Salt Lake City; San Jose, Calif.; Houston; Denver; Toronto; New Orleans; Chicago and Spokane, Wash. Its most recent incident was weeks before Thanksgiving when it struck a single small bird during takeoff in Denver.

Since 2000, reported bird strikes have resulted in five fatalities and 93 injuries. The cost of repairs 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 put the data into context.

“While bird strikes have attracted a lot of attention, they are, of course, rare events,” the Air Transport Association of America said in a written statement. “The vast majority of cases result in little or no aircraft damage.”

Among the reports that did contain a cost estimate, the most expensive strike occurred in 2001 in Troy, Ala., when the pilot of a Learjet was unable to avoid a white-tailed deer while landing. The plane veered off the runway and burst into flames, critically injuring the pilot and a passenger. The cost of repairs was estimated at $12 million. There are incidents in which larger planes reported damage but no estimate of the repair cost.

An overwhelming majority of reported strikes _ nearly 16,000 _ occurred on approach, the data showed. Another 20,000 were split nearly evenly among take-off, landing, and climbing. Only 19 occurred while the plane was parked; two of those resulted in damage.

White-tailed deer struck on runways caused more incidents of serious damage to planes since 1990 — at least 288 accidents — than any individual species of bird. Among birds, gulls, Canada geese, rock pigeons and turkey vultures were most frequently blamed for serious damage in cases where a species identification could be made.

The rarest of collisions occurred in Alaska: Twice planes hit caribou there — a private plane in 1993 and a business jet in 2005.

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

This week, however, 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 telling the AP it 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 flying around airports.


Associated Press writers Ted Bridis and Frank Bass contributed to this report.


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