Bird Strikes and Aviation: Facts and Fault

From Scott Brooksby’s article, “Bird Strikes and Aviation: Facts and Fault” published in the American Bar Association’s Mass Torts Practice Points on December 7, 2015:

Bird strikes are an increasing danger to commercial aviation and result in death and serious injury to passengers and crew, and soaring costs for aircraft damage.

According to Boeing, the first bird strike was recorded by the Wright Brothers in 1905. Now, aircraft-wildlife strikes are the second leading cause of aviation-related fatalities. Globally these strikes have killed over 400 people and destroyed more than 420 aircraft. In addition to birds, wildlife strikes have been reported involving horses, antelope, moose and many other mammals.

Potential Liability for Airport Operators
The USDA’s Airport Wildlife Hazards Program plays a leading role in the supervision and management of aircraft-wildlife strikes. The USDA notes that airport managers must exercise due diligence in managing wildlife hazards to avoid serious liability issues. The U.S. Code of Federal Regulations requires that Part 139-certificated airports experiencing hazardous wildlife conditions as defined in 14 C.F.R. section 139.337 to conduct formal wildlife hazard assessments. The certificated airports must develop wildlife hazard management plans as part of the certification standards. Airports are required to employ professional biologists trained in wildlife-hazard management. (14 C.F.R. § 139.337 and FAA Advisory Circular 150/5200-36). Failure to comply with the regulations can give rise to liability for airport operators.

Data Sampling
According to Boeing, the relevant wildlife-strike facts include:

1. More than 219 people have been killed as a result of bird strikes since 1988.

2. Between 1990 and 2009, bird and small and large mammal strikes have cost U.S. civil aviation $650 million per year.

3. The Air Force sustains about $333 million dollars in damage per year due to bird strikes.

4. About 5,000 bird strikes were reported by the Air Force in 2012.

5. About 9,000 bird and other wildlife strikes were reported for U.S civil aircraft in 2009.

6. The FAA has identified 482 species of birds involved in strikes from 1990-2012.

Factors Contributing to the Rise in Bird Strikes

1. The North American non-migratory Canada goose population increased from 1 million birds in 1990 to 4 million birds in 2009. Concentrations are particularly high at JFK airport and surrounding regions, with the ample grass and wetlands, but populations of various sizes are found near airports across the country.

2. A 12-pound Canada goose struck by an airplane moving at 150 miles per hour during takeoff generates the kinetic energy of a 1000 pound weight dropped from a height of ten feet.

3. Nesting populations of bald eagles increased from 400 pairs in 1970 to 13,000 pairs in 2010. Between 1990 and 2009, 125 bald eagle strikes were reported. The body mass of a bald eagle is 9.1 pounds for males and 11.8 pounds for females.

4. Finally, the population of European starlings is now the second most prevalent bird in America, numbering over 150 million. Often called “silver bullets,” they fly at high speed and have a body density that is 27 percent greater than gulls.

In January 2009, U.S. Airways Flight 1549 landed on the Hudson River after multiple Canada goose strikes in flight.  As a result, New York City Mayor Michael Bloombergdeclared war on geese. Suzanne Goldenberg, New York Declares War on Geese to Prevent Airport Bird Strikes, The Guardian (June 12, 2009). A mayoral steering committee gave the go-ahead to the USDA to cull geese in a 450-mile area encompassing JFK, LaGuardia, and Newark airports. Other means of control include:

1. Each summer, teams of USDA goose catchers capture geese that, in the molting condition cannot fly, including offspring that are then taken to slaughterhouses and dispatched. Between 2009 and 2010, 2911 geese were killed.

2. The USDA reports that 80 percent of Canada geese are resident, and remain in place, rather than migrate. The government and airport operators strongly advocate for the culling of non-migratory birds.

3. Discouraging nesting and grazing.

4. Letting grass grow taller, planting unpalatable grasses, reducing standing rainwater, and oiling eggs to prevent hatching.

5. Firing pyrotechnics and propane cannons.

Given the rapid growth of non-migratory birds at some of the busiest airports, and the dramatic increase in flights, it may only be a matter of time before a catastrophic bird or wildlife strike will happen again, with more disastrous results than the extraordinary landing of Flight 1549 on the Hudson.