When US Airways Flight 1549 splashed down in the Hudson River in January 2009, it made Capt. Sully Sullenberger an instant folk hero and made a flock of Canada geese the miscreants. Outside the aviation community, wildlife strikes had gone mostly unrecognized until that A320 and its load of fare-paying passengers were left bobbing in the Hudson.
But, as a report by the Department of Transportation inspector general notes, wildlife is not a new threat to aviation safety. In the past two decades, wildlife strikes have increased steadily and dramatically, including one involving Air Force Two last April. Reported collisions between feathered birds and man-made birds went from 1,770 in 1990 to 9,840 reported in 2011, a five-fold increase.
According to the DOT IG, wildlife strikes have resulted in at least 24 deaths and 235 injuries in the U.S., and since 1988, 229 deaths worldwide. They have also caused nearly 600,000 hours of aircraft downtime and $625 million in damages annually.
Under its Wildlife Hazard Mitigation Program, the FAA requires airports to create and implement wildlife hazard management plans to assess and minimize the risk of future strikes. But the Transportation Department inspector general found that the FAA’s oversight and enforcement activities are not sufficient to ensure airports adhere fully to program requirements or implement their wildlife hazard plans effectively .
In addition, the FAA’s policies and guidance for monitoring, reporting and mitigating wildlife hazards are mostly voluntary, thereby limiting their effectiveness. For example, the FAA recommends but does not mandate that airports and aircraft operators report all wildlife strikes to the agency’s strike database. As a result, the incompleteness of the FAA’s strike data affects the agency’s ability to evaluate the effectiveness of its program in reducing wildlife hazards.
Finally, the DOT IG found that while the FAA coordinates effectively with the Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services, its main partner in wildlife hazard mitigation, its efforts to coordinate with other relevant government agencies are limited and infrequent.
A male Canada goose can weigh 24 pounds or more, and the IG report notes that 13 of the 14 largest bird species—which include white and brown pelicans, sandhill cranes, wild turkeys and bald eagles—have shown significant population increases. All could cause catastrophic failure if ingested into an aircraft engine, not to mention what could happen in a run-in with a Cessna 172.
It’s time for the FAA to orchestrate further action before there is a flight that does not have the happy ending of US Airways 1549.