September 21, 2012

A recent Department of Transportation (DOT) report says collisions between birds and airplanes occur five times more often now than in 1990, and calls on the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to do more to solve the problem – offering the agency 10 recommendations to ensure it is working to reduce wildlife hazards at or near airports.

The FAA said it fully concurred with six of the DOT’s recommendations, partially concurred with three of the recommendations and did not concur with one of them – a request to change the reporting of bird strikes from voluntary to mandatory. The agency said it will continue to perform spot checks of airports’ strike records during annual inspections.

“While these initiatives will likely encourage more strike reporting, they do not ensure that the strike database will be complete,” the DOT said in response to the FAA’s comments. “Furthermore, with the FAA’s agreement to develop a performance metric, it is even more critical that FAA improves the quantity and quality of its wildlife strike data.”

Review the full DOT report “FAA Has Not Effectively Implemented its Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program.”

Wildlife strikes are not new threats to aviation safety, but over the past two decades, wildlife strikes have steadily increased from 1,770 reported in 1990 to 9,840 reported in 2011 – a five-fold increase. The rise in strikes is due in part to increases in large bird populations. Wildlife strikes have resulted in at least 24 deaths and 235 injuries in the United States, and since 1988, there have been 229 deaths worldwide. They have also caused nearly 600,000 hours of aircraft downtime and $625 million in damages annually according to the audit report from the DOT Office of Inspector General.

The report said that although the FAA has spent $458 million in the past five years to control birds and other wildlife around airports, it should do a better job of dealing with airplane-wildlife collision hazards.

In response, the FAA said that despite total bird strike counts being up, “serious” bird strikes are in fact decreasing. It said the agency already had many professionally managed wildlife hazard-mitigation programs in place that answer most of the DOT Inspector General’s complaints.

The FAA, in a fact sheet it released on its wildlife hazard management program, said the program has been in place for more than 50 years. It goes on to report it has a number of initiatives underway including: wildlife strike awareness posters; encouraging general aviation airports to conduct wildlife hazard assessments and determine what mitigation is needed; developing an online strike reporting database and making the bird strike database available to the public; and a redesigned, user-friendly website.

DOT auditors randomly selected 40 airports for its report and found that inspectors at just over half of the airports – 21 – “did not know whether the airports’ assessments and plans had been FAA reviewed and approved, or whether the airports were even required to conduct an assessment or develop a plan.” They also found that existing bird-strike reporting, which is voluntary, varies in effectiveness from one airport to another. At one airport, 90 percent of bird strikes in the airport logs were reporting to the FAA, while at another, only 11 percent of airport-log bird strikes were reported.

Overall, the FAA estimates that 39 percent of bird strikes are now submitted to its National Wildlife Database.

In related news, shortly before the DOT Inspector General’s report was released, a wildlife ecology researcher in Sandusky, OH reported that simple modifications of aircraft strobe light patterns and color may decrease the chance of collisions with Canada geese, which account for a high percentage of the most damaging strikes. The study by researcher Bradley Blackwell was published in the August edition of the Journal of Applied Ecology.

Blackwell’s research shows that additional efforts directed at the aircraft on approach or departure may be a way to further minimize airplane-bird collisions. In his study, Blackwell confirmed that although the standard aircraft “lights on” policy decreases collisions with Canada geese, changing the pattern of strobe flashes and modifying existing aircraft lights so their brightness peaks in the ultraviolet/violet range (380–400 nanometers) could help more.

Current bird-strike mitigation measures include scaring bird flocks away from airports with loud klaxon horns, cannon sound effects or predatory bird songs played at loud volume, as well as attempting to keep airports and bird-attracting landfills well separated. Some airport managers have hired professional sharpshooters to decrease the bird population one by one.