Airport experts flock to find solution to bird, plane collisions

A Denver-bound Boeing jet's run-in with a large bird was the latest reminder of the danger of sharing the skies with animals, but for a group of officials planning to meet this month, avian strikes are never off the radar.

Officials have tried everything from killing birds in and around airports to improving planes' ability to absorb strikes, but most experts believe as long as there are planes and birds, there will be collisions.


"There are so many different facets that cause a strike," said John Ostrom, chairman of the Bird Strike Committee and a manager of the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. "There's not much you can do for birds that are 3,000 feet in the air."

Later this month, Ostrom's committee, made up industry experts and representatives from the Federal Aviation Authority, Department of Defense and Department of Agriculture will gather in Memphis to tackle what is a growing problem. Reported incidents rose five-fold from 1990 to 2010, and, while they typically do little or no damage, the Jan. 15, 2009, emergency landing in the Hudson River of US Airways Flight 1549 showed everyone how dangerous midair collisions with birds can be.

Data from the FAA shows that there were 9,622 strikes in 2010, up from 1,793 reported 20 years earlier. That coincides with a 60 percent jump in airline passenger traffic and a 135 percent increase in air freight, according to the Department of Transportation. Some estimates say populations of Canada geese, common culprits in bird strikes, grow at up to 8 percent per year in and around airports. Finally, the number of strikes being reported has increased simply because of a growing awareness of the problem, said Ostrom.

"We're likely seeing a rise because of an education of reporting strikes," Ostrom said, adding that even now, only an estimated 41 percent of strikes are actually reported.

This year's Bird Strike Committee conference will focus on solutions "outside the fence" according to Ostrom. That means mitigating the habitat around the perimeter of airports. That can mean killing geese or simply altering the habitat to drive them away from areas where ascending and descending planes are at low altitudes. Many experts say that airports are a perfect haven for many birds and are usually near wetlands and waste facilities, which attract hungry animals.

In July, 700 Canada geese were rounded up from the area surrounding New York's John F. Kennedy airport and culled in the hopes that it would eliminate the breed from the region for good. Similar actions have been taken at airports throughout the nation.

"We could not afford to sit back and wait for a catastrophe to occur before cutting through bureaucratic red tape between federal agencies. We are finally taking action to help reduce bird strikes and save lives," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a proponent for the effort, said at the time.

But other experts say killing geese is not much of a solution, and they're not just defending animals.

"I have not seen where [culling] has been effective as a long-term solution," Jim Hall, chairman for the National Transportation Safety Board during the Clinton administration, told "We've done a pretty good job of controlling, if not eliminating, most major risks in aviation, but no airport is immune from this threat."

"What should happen is an effort to eliminate causes for the hazards, but it seems like politics is trumping safety," he added.

Ron Merritt, a biologist and former chief for the Air Force's Bird Aircraft Strike Hazard (BASH) team, agrees.

"Killing 1,000 geese really isn't going to do anything," Merritt told "If you kill them, nature with fill that vacuum and a new species will pop up in its place.

"We're better off if we don't build these things near wildlife areas like wetlands to begin with," he added.