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Bird strikes on the rise at LaGuardia Airport, nationwide, FAA data show

A bird flies past a jet taking off

A bird flies past a jet taking off from LaGuardia Airport. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

Reported bird strikes at airports around New York City and nationwide are on the rise despite efforts by airport operators and industry groups to address the safety issue.

The danger birds pose to commercial airplanes was put in a national spotlight when a US Airways jet had to land in the Hudson River after it collided with a flock of geese in 2009, but Federal Aviation Administration statistics indicate the problem is getting worse.

There were 175 bird strikes reported at LaGuardia Airport in 2014, according to the FAA -- the most since the agency started tracking the incidents in 1990.

Newark Liberty International also set a record with 177 reported strikes in 2014. At Kennedy, the incidents peaked at 258 in 2011; 210 were recorded last year.

Only 11 of the bird strikes at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark in 2014 damaged planes, according to the FAA's Wildlife Strike Database. But three of those collisions -- one at each airport -- resulted in "significant damage," according to the agency.

The Global Gateway Alliance, a travelers advocacy group, praised existing efforts to reduce the risks to airline passengers and crews but said the new FAA statistics show more must be done.

"There will always be the potential for bird strikes in New York since our airports are close to wildlife areas and birds migrate through our airspace, and federal and local agencies have worked aggressively to control geese populations in and around our airports," said Joseph Sitt, alliance chairman. "But it's clear from the numbers that they have to increase these efforts and find new solutions that protect passengers."

Nationally, reported strikes have increased dramatically -- from 1,851 in 1990 to 12,003 last year, the FAA data show. Birds were involved in 97 percent of the incidents, with a small number of other collisions on landing or takeoff involving creatures ranging from coyotes to deer.

At the three New York metro-area airports, a total of 251 bird strikes were reported in 2005. Last year, there were 562.

The Port Authority, which operates the airports, attributes much of the rise in reported incidents to hyper-awareness of bird strikes since the Hudson landing, and not a spike in actual collisions.

In January 2009, Capt. Chesley Sullenberger became an instant hero when he put US Airways Flight 1549 safely down on the river after the plane took off from LaGuardia and flew into a flock of Canada geese, sucking the large birds into its engines.

Robert Mann, a Port Washington-based aviation consultant and former American Airlines executive, called bird strikes "a persistent problem."

"It's taken very seriously because it has the potential to cause real problems," he said. "But even when it doesn't cause that degree of problems, it can result in an aircraft having to divert or certainly experiencing thousands of dollars' worth of damage just from a single bird impact."

The FAA estimates the annual cost to aviation at 117,740 hours of aircraft downtime and at least $187 million in direct monetary losses.

'A startle factor'

Bird strikes have never resulted in a fatality at a Long Island or New York City-area airport, according to the FAA.

The collisions rarely cause major damage, but emergency landings aren't uncommon.

In May 2014, a US Airways flight had to return to LaGuardia about 15 minutes after takeoff when a herring gull smacked into the plane, taking out an engine.

Last April, an American Airlines Envoy Air flight returned to LaGuardia for an emergency landing after one or more birds hit the left wing flap, according to news reports. It was the second emergency landing caused by a bird strike as a plane departed LaGuardia that month.

"There's a startle factor. You hear a thump and feel the airplane shudder a little bit, depending on the size of the jet," said Capt. Steve Jangelis, airport and ground environment chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association and a LaGuardia-based pilot.

Jangelis also serves on Bird Strike Committee USA, a nonprofit that links stakeholders from across the aviation industry with the goal of heightening awareness of bird strikes and, ultimately, preventing them.

Port Authority chief wildlife biologist Laura Francoeur -- also a Bird Strike Committee member -- said an analysis shows most of the strikes in the New York metro area involve small birds and "result in no damage to the aircraft."

"These migratory strikes are occurring off-airport at altitude," usually between about 500 and 3,000 feet above ground level, she said in an email.

The record number of incidents reported at LaGuardia and Newark is due largely to increased awareness and reporting by pilots, Francoeur said.

On Long Island, at Long Island MacArthur, Republic, East Hampton and Gabreski airports, the number of strikes is small and hasn't grown over the years, according to the federal data. There are far fewer flights at those airports, however.

Bird numbers seen rising

Wildlife biologists and the FAA believe the rise in incidents nationally may be due in part to an overall increase in U.S. bird populations.

The Canada geese population, for example, has swelled from 500,000 in 1980 to 3.8 million in 2013, according to the FAA.

Bird species that are common in airplane collisions, such as gulls, love water and open space, which attracts them to Kennedy and LaGuardia, said Chris Dwyer, a wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in Hadley, Massachusetts.

"It is a concern, especially with airports that are close to the water, because a lot of migratory birds do follow the coast and some species prefer to be in open areas, particularly open areas that are marshes," Dwyer said, referring to the wetlands surrounding Kennedy.

The FAA cited another possible reason for increased bird strikes: Newer turbofan-powered aircraft are quieter, making it more difficult for birds to hear and avoid them.

To try to reduce the number of strikes, the Port Authority has two full-time wildlife biologists and airport operations staff who help manage wildlife. It also contracts with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services to manage birds and animals at the airports.

Control methods range from making habitats less appealing by cutting grass and eliminating standing water to using noise and pyrotechnics to scare birds and other critters away. Avian radar, which detects flocks as they're approaching an airport, is being used at some hubs and was part of a pilot program at Kennedy.

Dwyer said lethal measures, such as rounding up and euthanizing birds, are used at airports as a last resort when other efforts have proved ineffective.

Reducing the risk is the goal, experts agree. Given the unpredictable nature of birds and their sheer numbers, there's virtually no chance of preventing all collisions with planes.

"Will that ever happen? Probably not," said Jangelis, of the Air Line Pilots Association. "But we want to give every airline a chance to avoid those strikes."

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