Travelers can get their first glimpse of federal data today documenting where and how often planes hit birds. But as the Federal Aviation Administration publically releases its bird strike data for the first time, the agency itself acknowledges the information is far from complete.
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It's difficult to draw conclusions from the information about which airports are most at risk. The government believes only one-fifth of bird strikes are reported. Still, safety experts have little doubt the problem is much bigger than the numbers show, and they say it is growing. Indeed, what frequent fliers can learn from the data is that bird strike reporting has increased dramatically in recent years.
"Bird strikes are on the increase primarily because you have an increasing population of birds, particularly the larger birds, and of course we do have more air traffic," said William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, told ABC News today. "And so those two add up to a higher probability of collisions."
The database includes reports of fewer than 3,000 bird strikes per year for the first several years of reporting from 1990 through 1994. The numbers increase from there, hitting a peak of 9,650 bird strikes in 2007. In total, FAA data indicates there have been more than 73,000 bird strikes in the U.S. in the last eight years.
Reports of collisions appear to have more than doubled at eight major airports, and numbers are especially high at two airports located near wetlands or fields that attract birds. The highest number of serious collisions was reported at New York's JFK airport with 30 such accidents. On the west coast, California's Sacramento International reported at least 28.
But before jumping to conclusions about whether there are airports to avoid in planning your next vacation, a note of caution: Concerns like that are the very reasons the FAA was pushing to keep the numbers private in the first place.
Kept under wraps until now, the data indeed paints an incomplete picture of the flyways where birds and planes collide.
"We think we are getting most of the major bird strikes, but we may not be getting as much data as we could be on the smaller strikes that might not be as significant individually, but will be if you hit a flock of them," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said today.
Many people are applauding the release of the information.
"I believe greater transparency is both necessary in our government and an important component of our safety management efforts in dealing with this matter," said Sen. Jay Rockefeller IV, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, in a Friday statement. "We should work with stakeholders to ensure that voluntary safety reporting programs are effective as possible."
Many travelers had argued they had a right to know where and when bird strikes happen. The issue was thrown into the spotlight after the Jan. 15 emergency landing on the Hudson River, when Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed a US Airways plane safely on the water after striking a flock of Canadian geese leaving LaGuardia.
More recently, a United plane returned to Sacramento's airport just after takeoff on April 10 because it, too, hit birds.