The full extent to which birds collide with airplanes had been unknown to the general public — until last week.
After initial reluctance, the Federal Aviation Administration released a comprehensive report on the dangerous bird problem at the nation's airports, an account that resulted in Kennedy International Airport scoring headlines for all the wrong reasons.
The FAA report, which tracked the period between January 1990 and November 2008, found that, since 1990, Kennedy has led the nation with 1,811 reported bird strikes. By comparison, LaGuardia had 954 avian collisions. The report only captured about 20 percent of all wildlife strikes and included the cost of repairs to the planes from the bird strikes — estimated to be more than $267 million.
And, at the heart of the controversy, one bird species seems to be garnering the nation’s attention: Canada geese.
JFK, the nation’s sixth busiest airport, is located near the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, a 9,000-acre stretch of small islands and marshes that is home to 330 bird species. The Wildlife Refuge is also a veritable breeding ground for gulls and geese which, along with mourning doves, comprise the majority of birds that hit planes, according to the FAA.
While the National Transportation Safety Board has not completed its investigation, authorities believe that a flock of Canada geese were sucked into the two jet engines of US Airways Flight 1549 shortly after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport on January 15. The bird strike caused the plane’s engines to immediately shut down, forcing the pilot to land in the Hudson River.
At a news conference last week, Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said the federal government should “create a new program that would devote millions of dollars to wildlife mitigation focusing on reducing bird strikes at the New York City airports and airports around the country.” Schumer also announced this week he will introduce new legislation requiring the FAA to make bird strike data mandatory.
Doug Adamo, spokesman for Gateway National Recreation Area’s Jamaica Bay Region, said officials are not currently performing habitat management to enhance bird habitats or nesting sites in the area to attract birds.
But officials at Kennedy seem to be taking matters into their own hands. This year, the airport expects to install the Avian Radar System, manufactured by Accipiter, which tracks birds’ course, speed and altitude within six miles and 3,000 feet of the airport.
City Council Transportation Committee Chairman John Liu (D-Flushing) said that although he does not plan to hold any hearings to look at bird strikes, he will work closely with federal authorities to find strategies to solve the problem and will consider everything from “more sophisticated electronic deterrence” to the “scarecrow” effect.
The scarecrow method is exactly what it sounds like — the use of falcons to scare birds out of a plane’s flight path, an environmentally friendly form of bird control known as a type of falconry.
“It’s something we have to look at, obviously,” Councilman Eric Ulrich (R-Ozone Park), a member of the Transportation Committee, said. Falconry is still a viable alternative option, he said.
The Port Authority currently has a five-year, $3 million contract with Falcon Environmental Services, Inc. to perform falconry at Kennedy Airport.
While Kennedy has been using falcons for decades to frighten gulls from its flight paths, they are not currently used at LaGuardia, Port Authority spokesman Pasquale DiFulco said.
Falconry wouldn’t work at LaGuardia, he said, because it is “effective against gulls, not geese.” Gulls are the primary birds at issue at Kennedy, but not at LaGuardia, where geese pose the main threat, DiFulco said.
However, veteran falconer Andrew Barnes of Falcon Environmental Services disagreed.
“It is the best tool we have available to us,” Barnes said.
Regardless of the method ultimately chosen to combat bird strikes, Queens officials agree: something has to be done to prevent another destructive accident.
“Active bird management and habitat alternation methods must be enhanced to ensure the safety and well being of air passengers,” said Assemblywoman Audrey Pheffer (D-Ozone Park).