FAA Proposes Keeping Bird Strike Data Under Wraps

After Sully's splash landing, a push to keep quiet how often pilots hit birds.

March 27, 2009— -- Captain Sully Sullenberger' s splash landing into the Hudson River this winter not only brought attention to the heroic actions of a well-trained flight crew. It also left many people wondering why the government wasn't more forthcoming with information about how often planes hit birds.

Now the Federal Aviation Administration -- already reluctant to provide information about bird strikes following the emergency landing of US Airways flight 1549 -- has formally proposed putting a lid on that information.

Though not a done deal, some say the proposed federal regulation interferes with air travelers' right to know. William Voss, president of the Flight Safety Foundation, told ABC News today that while he doesn't see the move as an attempt to hide information, the FAA owes the public some transparency in return.

The FAA should "protect [the data] if you need to for the sake of reporting, but with that comes an obligation to provide information back out of the system to the public and academic world," Voss said.

Voss said it would be beneficial for the FAA to periodically publicize the data.

In fact, it's a free flow of information from the airports and airlines that the FAA says it is trying to encourage by keeping data collected on bird strikes private. Reporting information on bird strikes is currently voluntary, and the hope is that confidentiality will encourage better reporting.

"The agency is concerned that there is a serious potential that information related to bird strikes will not be submitted because of fear that the disclosure of raw data could unfairly cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter," the notice in the March 19 Federal Register stated.

"Protecting voluntarily reported safety data is a vital tool in improving aviation safety," FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown told ABC News today.

"FAA has raised concerns about impeding the free flow of information on this critical issue," Eileen Denne at Airports Council International, North America, said today in a statement to ABC News. "While we are still collecting information from our members on the ACI-NA response, we do believe that release of the aggregated data makes sense until a final decision is made on the proposal."

Brown said the FAA absolutely agrees with the Obama administration's push to be more transparent. But she said there are certain programs that are protected in order to gather information on emerging safety issues.

There are more than 100 voluntary safety programs run by the FAA in which information is kept private. For instance, the Aviation Safety Action Program allows pilots, flight attendants and mechanics at major airlines to report safety issues without fear of retaliation.

Brown said the agency always operated the bird strike program as if it were protected as well, but now it is simply bringing it under the same statutory protections as other voluntary safety programs.

Voss said that while it's hard to quantify the effects of those private programs, "You can't dismiss as a coincidence that as these programs have come online, we've seen some of the safest periods in U.S. aviation history."

James Ray, a spokesman for the US Airways pilots association, said he believes the public disclosure of information is a good thing. He said if the FAA truly has an argument that public disclosure would distract from safety, pilots would be willing to listen to the agencies' argument. Ray added that at US Airways, it is mandatory to report bird strikes to both the airline and the FAA.

People are invited to comment on the proposed regulation. Those comments are due to FAA April 20.

Voluntary Reporting on Bird Strikes

Part of the problem is that reporting precisely how many birds are struck by planes is not cut and dry.

But because reporting bird strikes involving planes is voluntary, there's no way to tell how many incidents occur each year. Lack of mandatory reporting procedures also means the public doesn't know which airports face the problem most.

Experts said only 20 percent of bird strikes are ever reported, and some airports are more conscientious than others about keeping track of them.

There's also more chance of a bird strike on certain migratory bird routes, such as along the eastern seaboard, which also happens to be a busy corridor for air traffic.

"Drawing comparisons between airports is difficult because of the unevenness of reporting," according to the Federal Register notice. "Releasing this information without benefit of proper analysis would not only produce an inaccurate perception of the individual airports and airlines but also inaccurate and inappropriate comparisons between airports/airlines."

US Airways flight 1549 had to make an emergency landing in the Hudson River in mid-January because of a bird strike in both engines of the Airbus A-310 jet. All 155 people onboard survived the flight, which originated at New York's LaGuardia airport.

The FAA maintains a list of bird strikes according to airport, but when contacted by ABCNews.com shortly after the emergency landing on the Hudson River, the agency declined to release that information.

In January, Archie Dickey, an Embry-Riddle Aviation University professor who prepared FAA's database but was not authorized to release the contents, said there's a feeling in the community that if airports reported every bird strike they'd be criticized for poor management.

According to the Bird Strike Committee USA, more than 200 people have been killed since 1988 because of airborne collisions with birds.

"There's a variety of ways a bird can take down an airplane," said John Ostrom of the Metropolitan Airports Commission at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, who's also chairman of the Bird Strike Committee.

in the meantime, airports have undertaken costly efforts to make their runways and surrounding skies safer -- from canons to dogs to specially trained falcons and habitat mitigation.

The FAA's Web site on Airport Wildlife Mitigation says that bird strikes do more than $300 million of damage to aircraft each year.

ABC News' Sarah Netter contributed to this report.