Increasing plane risk posed by birds

February 5, 2009 4:14:16 PM PST
With evidence mounting that birds brought down Flight 1549, records uncovered by Eyewitness News show fewer birds being killed even as the risks grow.

Even on the surface, there are signs the Port Authority is failing to control the bird population around LaGuardia. Dig deeper and the data and documents reveal serious short-comings. The Port Authority states "bird strikes have been decreasing" because of its efforts.

While true at JFK, at LaGuardia bird strikes are soaring: from 31 in 2002 to 87 recorded strikes in 2007, up nearly 300 percent. Yet, Fish and Wildlife documents we've obtained show the number of birds killed by the Port Authority has declined each of the last four years, from 595 birds killed or removed in 2004 to just 193 in 2007. We asked the Director of Aviation to explain.

"If you see how aggressive we are every year molting season when geese can't fly, we do an annual round up at Rikers working with DOC and parks," Bill Decota said.

True, the annual roundups have reduced geese on nearby Rikers Island, but elsewhere around the airport, birds have multiplied while bird strikes have tripled. You would think the Port Authority would have revised or stepped up its wildlife plan to attack the growing problem, yet the latest 2008 plan is the same as the initial one put into effect seven years ago.

"You take a look at things like bird radar. Bird radar is something that wasn't around 10 years ago," he said.

When we asked if bird radar exists at LaGuardia? "There is no bird radar at LGA," he replied.

"They are not doing their job," wildlife biologist Steven Garber, who worked for the Port Authority in the 1990s. "The number of bird strikes is increasing. What they are doing is inadequate. They have to be working harder and instead what you see is that they are working less."

And the last decade is filled with close calls involving bird strikes at LaGuardia: "engine flame outs", "emergency landings," "shattered windshields" and the closest of close calls, Flight 1549, which increasingly appears to have been brought down by birds.

Decota agrees that the warning signs are very serious.

"Absolutely, every bird strike is taken seriously. Every return of every aircraft to the airport is treated seriously.... There's nothing about LaGuardia's Bird Wildlife Management program that isn't very aggressive and very directed toward protecting people and property."

So why then did it take just minutes to find a wide open trash dumpster at a LaGuardia terminal -- a direct violation of their own wildlife management plan that calls for "the elimination of open dumpsters" that could attract birds.

"You would think that right after this crash that they would have people making sure that they are on top of everything, especially the things they are telling the press they're doing," Garber said.

Port Authority says when it comes to bird strikes, LaGuardia is as safe or safer than any other large airport in the country.

We checked it out. Comparing LaGuardia with Logan International in Boston, both airports surrounded by water, LaGuardia has averaged 77 bird strikes per year during the last 3 years. Logan has significantly fewer, averaging 65 strikes per year.