WASHINGTON – About 700 yards from the end of a LaGuardia Airport runway, where thousands of planes take off and land, New York officials want to build what could be the equivalent of a bird magnet: a very large garbage transfer station.
Just four months after a run-in with birds sent a jet full of people into the Hudson River separating New York and New Jersey.
"That's just insane," said Jeff Skiles, co-pilot of USAirways Flight 1549, which ditched in the water Jan. 15. "We have a lot of difficulty keeping birds away from airports as it is."
The city and the Federal Aviation Administration insist that the 2,000 tons of garbage, which would be hauled by truck into the 100-foot tall facility each day and sent out again on barges, won't entice birds because the waste will be kept in containers or inside the building.
"We don't see it (the station) as opening up some advertisement to the bird population that says, 'Come here for a meal' — it's not that kind of facility," said Walter Czwartacky, special projects director at the city sanitation department.
But pilots, bird experts and members of Congress are not convinced that the department's plan is as bird-proof as its proponents say it is. The Air Line Pilots Association International is asking the FAA and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates LaGuardia, for a wildlife risk analysis of the project.
Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., whose constituents are unhappy with the project, said the plan defies common sense.
"Stand in any street and watch the garbage truck go by. Guess who is flying above them? They leak liquid, they have trash hanging off the sides — anybody knows that," Ackerman said. "The whole thing is mystifying. Of all the places to put it, why direct deadline center at the end of a runway?"
Rory Kay, the pilot association's executive safety chairman and a pilot who flies Boeing 757s and 767s out of LaGuardia, said air traffic controllers have a nearly continuous warning to pilots about birds in the vicinity of LaGuardia. But, he said, when a plane is traveling at 3.5 miles a minute (or 210 mph) "there's not much you can do about it at that stage of the game" short of aborting a takeoff or landing.
"It's kind of a leap of faith to conclude there are no bird issues here," Kay said.
LaGuardia is the same airport from which the USAirways flight hit a flock of Canada geese. Skiles and Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger were lauded as heroes for averting a catastrophe in densely populated New York by gliding the plane safely into the Hudson. All 155 people aboard survived.
LaGuardia is the nation's 19th busiest airport, with 378,521 takeoffs and landings in 2008. The transfer station is planned for property on the shore of the Flushing Bay, which the airport borders on the east. Czwartacky said a smaller transfer station operated on the same site for decades until it closed in 2001, and the department was unaware of a problem with birds being attracted to it.
Richard Dolbeer, an expert on bird-plane collisions, said it might be safe to put garbage transfer stations of the type proposed by New York near some airports where scavenging birds aren't common. But he said LaGuardia is exactly the kind of airport and location least compatible with a trash facility.
"It certainly raises a red flag," Dolbeer said. "I don't think enough research has been done to really determine if these fully enclosed facilities do not attract wildlife. ... LaGuardia has enough problems (with birds) as it is just being located on the water."
The species of greatest concern are sea gulls, said Dolbeer, a wildlife biologist. Four types of gulls are native to Flushing Bay, he said, and all are attracted to trash.
Gulls also tend to flock. A lone bird generally isn't much of a threat to an airliner, but a flock can be calamitous.
Reports to a bird strike database maintained by the FAA and the Agriculture Department show planes in the U.S. have collided with gulls more often than any other bird species — over 7,000 times since 1990, Dolbeer said. Of those collisions, more than 1,200 damaged or destroyed the aircraft, he said.
At nearby John F. Kennedy International Airport, a DC-10 crashed and burned on Nov. 12, 1975, after ingesting gulls in one engine while landing. No one was killed, but the airplane was destroyed.
There were 935 bird-plane collisions at LaGuardia between 1990 and late 2008, although only 28 were severe enough to seriously damage or destroy the aircraft, according to the bird strike database. It ranks 14th out of 754 U.S. airports for bird collisions.
FAA spokesman Jim Peters said the agency's determination last year that a transfer station wouldn't be a hazard was based on the height of the facility and whether it would interfere with radar and radio operations at the airport. He said FAA doesn't consider transfer stations where trash is enclosed to be hazardous if they are operated properly.
FAA also doesn't have the power to stop a project, he said.
"That's strictly a local issue," Peters said.
The city has received bids for the project and hopes to begin construction this summer, with a goal of completion by 2012, Czwartacky said.
Last week, Ackerman and Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., inserted into a House aviation bill a provision directing FAA to rescind its determination that the project isn't a hazard. It was fortunate, Crowley said, that the pilot of Flight 1549 "had the split-second judgment" to ditch into the Hudson.
"Another pilot, another plane may not be so fortunate," Crowley said.