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."
United Flight 1549 Drew Attention to Bird Strikes
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.
When contacted by ABCNews.com shortly after the landing on the Hudson, the agency declined to release its information on bird strikes. Earlier this week, the Department of Transportation ordered the FAA to publicize what it knows.
Limitations of FAA's Bird Strike Data
But providing raw data about bird strikes out of context could be a problem, the FAA has argued.
For instance, it remains up to airports and airlines whether to report the information to the FAA in the first place. Some airlines, like USAirways, require their pilots to hand over that information, others do not. Put simply, travelers can't be sure that all of the bird strikes that happen are tallied up in the numbers.
In other words, just because an airport looks safe from the birds doesn't mean they've never had a problem: They simply may have kept quiet. And an airport that appears to have a major problem may not be experiencing anything out of the ordinary: They may just be more meticulous about reporting their information to the FAA.
Today Brown said the FAA plans to now bring the industry together to figure out how to collect more voluntary data. "If we're not able to do that, then we could move toward mandatory reporting," she said.
There could also be many reasons for an increase in the number of bird strike reports over time, as explained in a June 2008 FAA report on wildlife strikes in the United States between 1990 and 2007.
"We suggest that the increase in reports from 1990 to 2007 was the result of several factors: an increased awareness of the wildlife strike issue, an increase in aircraft operations, an increase in populations of hazardous wildlife species, and an increase in the number of strikes," the report stated.
It added that a "temporary plateau" in reported strikes between 2000 and 2003 could also have been related to a slight decline in air traffic following the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks.
Still, that report also said officials assessing bird strikes "expect the risk, frequency, and potential severity of wildlife-aircraft collisions to grow over the next decade."
There's also a chance that one bird strike may have been counted more than once, if, for instance, a pilot reported hitting a bird, a mechanic reported finding feathers from that same bird in the engine during maintenance, and a worker on the runway reported finding that dead bird.
The FAA has estimated that every year bird strikes cause more than $600 million in damage. In the past 20 years, more than 200 people have died worldwide in accidents blamed on bird strikes, according to Bird Strike Committee USA. The most deadly crash associated with a bird strike happened in October 1960 when 62 people died on a flight leaving Boston after the plane hit a flock of birds. That led to tests on jet engines to ensure the planes could take the hit.
Since then, airports have undertaken costly efforts to make their runways and surrounding skies safer.
"I'm not alarmed by the data but it is something that deserves watching and deserves some more positive, proactive responses," Voss said.
"This was atypical, but the risk needs to be adequately assessed," Sullenberger told lawmakers on Feb. 24 after pulling off his miracle landing on the Hudson.
ABC News' Gary Langer and Sarah Netter contributed to this report.