Don't count on another miracle

Remember Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger, the US Airways pilot who landed his Airbus A320 carrying 155 passengers safely on the Hudson River in 2009 after a flock of geese collided with the jet over New York's LaGuardia Airport and stalled both engines?

Mr. Sullenberger's cool handling of the emergency prevented what could have been one of the worst airline disasters in recent memory, and it made him an instant folk hero. It also focused national attention on the threat to commercial airliners posed by bird strikes around major airports.


But three years after what headline writers in the Big Apple called "the miracle on the Hudson," the Federal Aviation Administration says the risk of such collisions remains unacceptably high. The next time an incident involving bird strikes occurs, it warns, airline passengers and crew may not be so fortunate.

The FAA inspector general's office recently warned that not enough is being done to reduce the risk of commercial jets colliding with wildlife near airports. Over the past five years, the agency has spent some $458 million to control birds and other wildlife around airports, yet the number of such collisions has actually risen, owing largely to the fact that more planes are flying and bird populations around airports have increased.


The past two decades have seen a five-fold increase in the number of collisions between aircraft and wildlife, from 1,770 reported cases in 1990 to nearly 10,000 last year. Few result in fatal accidents or major damage to aircraft, but there have been at least 24 deaths and 235 injuries in the United States attributable to bird strikes since 1988.

This year alone, 75 commercial aircraft have collided with birds during takeoff or landing. At Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, 975 bird strikes have been recorded since 2000, of which 54 resulted in damage to aircraft. Of the region's other two major airports, Dulles International in Virginia recorded 1,130 bird strikes and Reagan National outside Washington 550.

The FAA says it's taking steps to reduce the risk from collisions with wildlife around major airports. The measures have included erecting perimeter fences to keep out rodents and other small animals that raptors feed on; laying traps and setting snares to capture geese and other large birds that pose the greatest risk to aircraft jet engines; firing cannons to scare birds away; or killing them outright. But none of those methods has proven wholly successful.

That's because bird populations have increased drastically, along with the number of planes in the air. Due to an unintended consequence of programs aimed at wildlife conservation, many species that were once endangered have rebounded in recent decades. Canada geese like those that brought down Captain Sullenberger's US Airways Flight 1549, for example, have seen their numbers grow from about 1 million in 1990 to some 3.5 million today.

The combination of increasing bird populations and shrinking natural habitat due to suburban sprawl make the relatively empty acres around major East Coast airports look like inviting stopovers to birds migrating along the Atlantic flyway.

The FAA clearly needs to step up its efforts to reduce the risk of bird strikes on commercial aircraft. Large jets operating around airports where large bird populations congregate make for a potentially deadly combination. Even when such collisions don't result in serious accidents, the damage they cause and the delays in flight schedules that result are costly in an industry that operates on narrow profit margins.

Nationally, such incidents cost the airlines $625 million a year, and that's without a major incident involving loss of life. We've been lucky so far, but that's hardly something either the industry or the FAA can count on to continue indefinitely. As the agency's own audit makes clear, the current situation is bad and growing worse. Without prompt action by the FAA, we are literally looking at a disaster waiting to happen.