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Proposal to Keep Data on Bird Strikes Secret Rebuffed

Thu, Apr 30, 2009 — David Evans

Articles, Featured

Withholding from the public information on wildlife strikes on aircraft would “deny independent researchers the ability to examine all available factors in the database and would make valid comparisons among airports and among some other entities impossible,” said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in its 21 April 2009 submission to the public docket.

Comments were due 20 April to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposal to limit disclosure to the public of bird strikes to avoid misleading comparisons that might be made of the information (See ASJ, ‘Significant Regulatory & Related Activity’). Sure enough, with the sudden release of all bird strike data, independent researchers are using it to yield significant new insights.

The overnight availability of wildlife strikes, by aircraft, by airport – which had previously been classified – has been used by a National Public Radio (NPR) researcher to show that bird strikes can be tabulated as rates per so many landings and take offs at each airport. By combining the FAA’s wildlife strike reports with airport activity figures to calculate airport “strike rates,” damaging bird impacts can be standardized according to the amount of traffic at an airport. The new calculations not only make sense, the work of independent researchers can obviously provide new insights.

The refreshing openness is the result of a 20 April decision by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to reject the FAA’s 19 March announced plan to keep certain data secret, nullifying use of the strike database by outside researchers.

Transportation Department Secretary Ray LaHood, who argued that if torture memos can be released to the public, the FAA can certainly make bird strike information available.

Transportation Department Secretary Ray LaHood, who argued that if torture memos can be released to the public, the FAA can certainly make bird strike information available.

In an interview with Washington Post reporter Lois Romano, Secretary LaHood said declassification of torture memoranda made full release of bird strike data a no-brainer:

Ms. Romano: We all know the story now of Captain Sully guiding the plane where the bird hit the engine, and now we read that the FAA wants to keep those reports of bird interference out of the public hands. What do you think about that?

Sec. LaHood: I think all of this information ought to be made public, and I think that you’ll soon be reading about the fact that we’re going to, you know, make this information as public as anybody wants it. The people should have access to this kind of information.

Ms. Romano: Okay. So you – you disagree with the idea that –

Sec. LaHood: Well, it was put in – you know, it was put out so that people could made comments, and I think 99.9 percent of the comments that were made were to keep it public, and I agree with that. Well, look … the whole thing about the – the bird strike issue is it doesn’t really comport with the President’s idea of transparency. I mean, here they just released all of these CIA files regarding interrogation, and – and then we’re – we’re trying to then … trying to tell people they can’t have information about birds flying around airports, that – I don’t think that really quite comports with the policies of the administration. So it’s something that somebody put out there to get a reaction. We got the reaction, and now we’re going to bring it to conclusion.

Actually, the situation is a bit more complex than described by Secretary LaHood. The Associated Press filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the FAA to obtain bird strike data on LaGuardia Airport, from which Captain Sullenberger took off before hitting Canada geese and ditching in the Hudson River. The FAA denied the request and then issued its proposal to keep collision data by airport confidential. The FAA was concerned that airports and airlines would be reluctant to report such strikes for fear of hurting business.

A flock of birds, disturbed by a light plane's takeoff, takes flight from the side of the runway at Canandaigua, NY.

A flock of birds, disturbed by a light plane's takeoff, takes flight from the side of the runway at Canandaigua, NY.

With LaHood’s decision, the FAA said 22 April that its proposal to protect the data will be withdrawn:

“The FAA has determined that it can release the data without jeopardizing aviation safety. The FAA has redacted a very small amount of data in the database containing privacy information, such as personal phone numbers. Over the next four months, the FAA will make significant improvements to the database to improve the search function and make it more user-friendly. In its current format, user will only be able to perform limited searches online, but will be able to download the entire database.”

Now that the data is publicly accessible, one can readily summarize the bird strike history at LaGuardia. There have been 603 bird strikes reported 2000-2007, the last year for which data is available. Of these, 12 strikes involved Canada geese. Gulls make up the majority of the reports, but in many cases the species is reported as “unknown.”

NPR combined the bird strike data with airport activity to produce a rate of bird strikes. NPR looked at the nation’s 49 busiest airports, and found that the national average for these airports was 19 strikes per 100,000 flight operations. LaGuardia was slightly below average, with 17 strikes per 100,000 operations. The airport with the highest rate was at Sacramento, California, with a rate of 66 per 100,000 flight operations. Sacramento Airport is surrounded by agricultural land and is also on the Pacific Flyway for migratory birds. A spokesman said the airport’s wildlife management plan includes making sure airport plantings aren’t bird-friendly, and harassing birds near flight operations with loud cannons, pyrotechnics and bird distress calls.

Map produced by NPR, showing relative risk of a bird strike at the nation's 49 busiest airports. This sort of illustration was not possible until the FAA released bird strike data by airport.

Map produced by NPR, showing relative risk of a bird strike at the nation's 49 busiest airports. This sort of illustration was not possible until the FAA released bird strike data by airport.

Releasing data on wildlife strikes the FAA has accumulated from voluntary reporting covers only a small aspect of the bird strike problem. The voluntary reports are shot through with holes, such as the bird species.

The NTSB recommended in 1999 that the FAA make the reporting of bird strikes mandatory. Indeed, many comments submitted in response to the FAA’s now-cancelled proposal to keep bird strike data confidential remarked on the need to make such reporting mandatory for consistent reporting.

In its 1999 letter to the FAA recommending mandatory reporting, the NTSB said:

“The FAA estimates that less than 20 percent of strikes are reported to the FAA; thus, its database reflects only a fraction of the actual strikes and grossly underestimates the magnitude of the problem. Bird strikes are estimated to cause in excess of 501,560 hours per year of aircraft down time, $237.43 million per year in direct monetary losses, and $77.21 million per year in associated costs to the U.S. civil aviation industry.

“The Safety Board concludes that the voluntary reporting system has not resulted in the provision of adequate data on bird srike hazards and this has hindered the proper evaluation of the problem and implementation of safety improvements. Therefore, the Safety Board believes that the FAA should require all airplane operators toreport bird strikes to the FAA.”

To this plea the FAA replied in February 2000:

“A regulatory requirement to mandate the reporting of bird strikes would not resolve the basic problem of bird activity and aircraft. The FAA believes that better design and planning of airport locations and on-airport control of bird hazards are keys to the reduction of the bird hazard problem.”

In May 2000 the NTSB classified its recommendation “Closed – Unacceptable Action” and sent the FAA expressions of disappointment:

“The importance of establishing a solid database of bird strikes and using data to determine trends and forecast potential hazards cannot be understated. Although many of the bird strike prevention measures the FAA is taking are promising, the Board is disappointed with the FAA’s failure to adopt this measure.”

Enter Secretary LaHood, who has intimated recently that he will make such reports mandatory. Such a decision would be more gutsy than simply ordering the FAA to make incomplete data available to the public. But, as indicated in the comments below on the withholding of bird strike data, the issue of public disclosure and mandatory reporting are closely linked. Mandatory reporting would address any concerns the FAA may have about the willingness to report such information and it would provide more comprehensive data to spur mitigation of the avian hazard.

If Secretary LaHood in fact orders his subordinate agency, the FAA, to require reporting of wildlife strikes, it would mark a first, where the transportation secretary intervened in the FAA’s rejection and supported an NTSB recommendation.

Secretary LaHood is likely to get comfortable issuing such orders, and a couple more would further part the dark curtains of secrecy and allow the bright light of public access to shine in.

For example, the FAA has only required service difficulty reports (SDR) to be submitted on problems in airliners that are actually flying. Aircraft that have the same or similar problems on the ground are exempt from submitting SDR reports. Thus, the severe electrical arcing in a United Airlines B777 taxiing at London’s Heathrow Airport would not generate an SDR report. (See ASJ, ‘Regulatory Lassitude Contributed to Electrical Fire’)

The airlines have resisted submitting SDRs for problems on the ground, arguing that the added reporting requirement would be an onerous burden.

Presently, airline reporting of SDRs is frankly very spotty. Some airlines report SDRs religiously, some submit only a fraction of the reports they are required to, often late, while a few other airlines do not even bother to submit SDRs. Because of this scandalously inconsistent reporting, the SDR database cannot be mined for system wide trends.

Well before it addressed the parlous condition of the FAA’s bird strike reporting, the NTSB pleaded for action on the even more useless condition of the SDR database. The NTSB wrote the FAA in 1993, without success, asserting:

“Attempts to effectively use the SDR data base in recent Safety Board investigations have revealed that the current program is incomplete and of limited value in identifying accurate service defect histories because many reportable service difficulties are not reported to the FAA.

“This situation was identified during the Board’s investigation of an accident involving the failure of a Cessna 208 landing gear shimmy damper and cracking of the engine/nose gear mounting structure. The FAA SDR data base revealed only two reports of engine mount cracking and no prior reports of shimmy damper failure. However, data supplied by the airplane manufacturer showed 17 reports of engine mount cracking and 250 reports of shimmy damper failure …”

If manufacturers have such knowledge, so too should the FAA. Secretary LaHood could strike a real blow for safety by requiring the FAA to demand SDR reports from operators, and to use the data for analysis of system reliability and maintenance problems. It goes without saying that without good data, there can be no effective oversight of the industry.

Secretary LaHood could perform an even greater service for the flying public. The National Air & Space Administration (NASA) occasionally undertakes research into airline safety. One recent effort involved an innovative attempt to identify risks to air safety through structured interviews of pilots, air traffic controllers, flight attendants and mechanics.

Known as the National Aviation Operational Monitoring Service (NAOMS), the program featured extensive polling of airline pilots during 2001-2004, and included narrative summaries from the pilots of risks to safe flight. Those risks included engine failures, bird strikes, runway incursions, overcrowded radio frequencies – in short, just about the full panoply of hazards faced on a daily basis. The pilots’ responses and their airlines were de-identified so as to preserve confidentiality.

Because the survey featured standardized questions to pilots, the results were considered statistically valid and of potentially great use by the FAA to improve safety. NAOMS data, for example, showed a significantly higher incidence of runway incursions that the FAA acknowledged in its data base.

The Associated Press submitted a FOIA request for the data, which was initially denied by NASA. Ultimately, the data were grudgingly released. The FAA said there was nothing to be learned from the data, and the NAOMS effort died. Dr. Robert Krosnick, a Stanford University scientist involved in the design of the NAOMS study, explained that the study could be used to flesh out gaps in voluntary or even required reporting systems:

“NAOMS event rates may be considerably higher than those yielded by voluntary or mandatory airline or government reporting systems because people must take initiative to report events via the latter systems, and if some people accidentally or intentionally fail to report some events, the registered rates in the administrative records will be misleadingly low. Much as we might hope that employees will fully and properly participate in all voluntary and mandatory reporting systems, it is possible that they do not.”

From just the sample of pilots interviewed under NAOMS, it was revealed that there were more than 4,000 occasions where reserve fuel was required to remain flying (indicating that pilots were being pressured by some airlines to carry the absolute minimum fuel as a cost saving measure – a practice of which the FAA was unaware).

It is obvious that the NAOMS effort, if resurrected and the data were used by the FAA, would yield useful insights that could lead to further advances in aviation safety. In fact, the FAA could issue monthly reports, based on NAOMS data, to Congress and to the public. These reports could document rates and trends in the recently collected data, modeled after the press releases put out by the Conference Board and the University of Michigan’s Survey Research Center on measures of consumer confidence.

Secretary LaHood could direct the FAA to fund the NAOMS effort and to publicize its findings. The public would benefit by having sound information on all aspects of airline safety, not just bird strikes. As George Torgun wrote in the docket about public reporting of wildlife strikes, executive agencies are being held by President Obama to a presumption of openness. Certainly wider reporting of all threats to safety would incentivize the FAA to protect passengers from all threats to mundane, event-free flight.

LaHood could, with a couple straightforward directives to the FAA, appear like a real hero to the flying public.

Comments in the public docket on the FAA’s proposal to withhold data on wildlife strikes (a representative sampling of the 70 comments provided). Note that the public and the NTSB favored disclosure, but some in the industry did not. LaHood can expect 99.9 percent closed-ranks opposition from industry to the two modest proposals mentioned here. He can expect 99.9 percent enthusiastic support from the public

From Bob Kupke, citizen:

“I think the public is responsible enough to see the data our government is collecting. Disclose the data about bird strikes to the public.”

From Alan Mantell, citizen:

“The FAA’s contention that it should be exempt from FOIA requirements re bird strike data to enhance the likelihood of incident reporting is without merit. Reporting will progress in any case, given the increasing awareness of the potential severe consequences of bird strikes, including risk to human life … The FAA proposal should be wholly rejected.”

From Mike Chetwin, citizen:

“The proposed secrecy concerning wildlife/aircraft incidents by the FAA is beyond reasonable comprehension by competent people! When my government decides that responsible professionals, those involved in the day to day business of professional transportation, are not able to ‘handle’ data concerning wildlife activity and its impact on business, it’s time to change government! We are not talking about foreign terrorist actions here, items of national security, etc. We are talking about birds and aircraft! If pertinent data is secreted from those that need it, how will effective means to reduce the threat ever come about? Bureaucrats must not be allowed to dictate what responsible citizens may or may not hear, read or see!”

From Paul Tietze, citizen:

“I think the bird strike info should be available to the public so that they can assess the risk of flying on specific planes or from specific airports. If the risk is high at an airport, they will then have incentive to address the issue. How will the risk be reduced if the information is secret?

“Reporting of bird strikes should be mandatory.”

From George Torgun, citizen:

“This proposal [to keep the data from the public] was announced after a Freedom of Information Act (‘FOIA’) reuest was submitted by the Associated Press following the bird strikes that brought down U.S. Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. For the reasons stated below, the FAA’s action is contrary to both the legal requirements of Section 40123 and memoranda from President Obama and Attorney General Holder committing all executive departments and agencies to a presumption of openness under FOIA. Rather than withholding such information from disclosure, the FAA should mandate public reporting of wildlife strike reports so that it can better assess and protect the public from such hazards in the future ….

“While the FAA notes that the number of strike reports submitted annually has quadrupled between 1990 and 2007, it also admits that ‘[d]rawing comparisons between airports is difficult because of the unevenness of reporting.’ In fact, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded in 1999 that such voluntary reporting omits many bird strikes and ‘grossly underestimates the magnitude of the problem,’ and also found that more than half of the reports actually submitted ‘lack the m ost critical piece of information about a strike, the species of bird.’ …

“In sum, rather that allowing the reporting of bird strike data to remain voluntary, and seeking to protect such voluntary information from public discolure, the FAA should follow the recommendation of the NTSB and mandate all airplane operators to report wildlife strikes to the FAA. Such mandatory reporting would address any concerns that the FAA has regarding the willingness of airlines to report such information, and would better enable the FAA to use the data in a comprehensive manner to understand, evaluate, and protect the public from future wildlife strike incidents.”

From Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA):

“We understand the FAA’s caution in dealing with the public disclosure of wildlife strike data. However, we also believe that individual strike reports do not imply individual accountability for the strikes ….

“ACI-NA members that support the Proposed Order are concerned that disaggregate wildlife strike data could be misinterpreted by the public and potentially require airports to refocus their wildlife hazard management efforts in response to unfounded concerns. They also noted that the voluntary reporting of data contained in the database are complex and not all inclusive of incident facts. Accordingly, there is concern that the use of the database by untrained personnel could produce inaccurate perceptions through misinterpretation of individual airport and airline data.

“ACI-NA members that oppose the Proposed Order note that, as public agencies, they are subject to state and local sunshine laws that require them to provide their locally-collected wildlife strike reports to the public already. These members also cited the concern that preventing public disclosure of strike data may result in the public perception that airports are not disclosing safety-critical information. There was also some concern expressed that if the FAA database were restricted from public disclosure, individual airports would need to respond to public requests for the data individually, distracting them from more important activities, such as wildlife management itself ….

“For the reasons set forth in these comments, ACI-NA cannot take a position either supporting or opposing the FAA’s Proposed Order. If the FAA chooses to make the Wildlife Strike Database open to public discosure, we encourage the FAA to provide explanatory information to assist the public and media to use the data responsibly, with a clear understanding of what they do say and – more importantly – what they do not say about the hazards wildlife pose to aircraft operations at and near airports.”

From Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA):

“Given the potentially adverse impact on current and future voluntary disclosure programs, ALPA supports the intent of the Proposed Order and offers the following comments ….

“It is important to keep in mind that raw data, distributed without appropriate analysis and scrutiny to ensure its validity, can lead to unintended consequences. Incomplete or inaccurate conclusions can be reached if the collection method is flawed or if people looking at the data aren’t familiar with aviation or the context of how that information was provided. No one knows and understands the data better than the stakeholders that provide the data in the first place ….

“Just as importantly, if raw data are simply distributed to the general public without the quality controls mentioned herein, it would undermine the confidence that voluntarily and confidentially supplied safety data will remain secure. ALPA remains concerned that opening this Wildlife Hazard Database to the general public without appropriate analysis and validation of the data could undermine the very programs that have driven the excellent safety record of airline travel that the public has come to rely on.”

From Sikorsky Aircraft:

“Sikorsky supports this Order [prohibiting public disclosure] …. The likelihood of impact remains a largely random occurrence among operators of similar aircraft models in the same geographic area. The classification by operator would not necessarily improve the conclusions, and only cast needless aspersions on the reporters. This would inhibit future reports ….”

From the Bird Strike Committee – USA (BSC-USA):

“[The] current rate of reporting is unacceptable [<20%] … We agree with the FAA’s position not to jeopardize the current percent reporting rate by protecting the raw data provided voluntarily to populate [probably the incorrect word, more likely ‘to protect’] the Wildlife Hazard Database from public disclosure. With the low percentage of strikes being reported, we do not want anything done that would risk causing this reporting rate to decrease further. BSC-USA will work with the FAA, airports, and the aviation industry to develop assurances that sensitive data will be protected so as not to compromise reporting rates ….

“With less than 20 percent of the wildlife strikes that occur nationally being reported, there is a significant gap in the data required for a thorough analysis of the exact nature of the wildlife hazard problem … We propose that the FAA make wildlife strike reporting mandatory.”

From Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and The American Society of News Editors:

“The FAA proposal rolls back access to information that is properly in the public sphere. First, in its Federal Register notice on this issue, it appears the agency is concerned the general public is incapable of intelligently interpreting the data. This proposed restriction is offensive to President Barack Obama’s directive on open government issued Jan. 21, 2009, as well as his stated goal of increasing government transparency. Moreover, the FAA’s proposal misunderstands the way in which this public data has been used in news reporting over the almost two decades it has been available.

“The FAA – without citing any evidence – speculates that the only way it will continue collecting this data voluntarily from airlines and pilots is if it keeps it secret. Not only does this theory lack a factual basis, it also overlooks the most basic solution to ensuring the FAA continues to have access to this data, which is a mandatory reporting requirement. (Several recommendations have been made, including one by the National Transportation Safety Board, that the FAA require reports of these incidents. We urge the FAA to adopt the expert recommendations on this point for a mandatory reporting requirement.)

“Finally, the public interest and benefit from disclosure of this information is significant. It is ironic that at the precise moment when the public is asking for access to this information because of the recent air plane crashes involving birds, the FAA is fighting to keep this information secret. Public access and analysis of the data will lead to a quality discussion about the dangers of bird strikes and air travel – and to more educated choices by government officials and the public on how the danger can be curtailed ….

“On Jan. 21, 2009, President Obama issued a memorandum on transparency and open government. He wrote, ‘Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action … to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.’

“What the FAA is proposing is the antithesis of this mandate. In its Federal Register notice the FAA says, ‘The complexity of the information warrants care with its interpretation; 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.’

“But President Obama’s memo makes no such caveat that information release should only by that which an agency subjectively decides the public is capable of understanding without its also subjective ‘proper analysis.’ Indeed, it is not for the government to determine what the public is capable of understanding and processing. In a democratic system, the people who elect the government are trusted with access to the information

their government holds ….

“We urge the FAA to carefully consider what it is cutting off access to, information the president called a ‘national asset.’ In his memo on FOIA, President Obama also noted, ‘The Government should not keep information confidential because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.’ Yet that is what is happening in this instance.”

From the NTSB:

“The Safety Board understands that the FAA

Intends only to restrict access to certain fields within the database that could identify particular entities, such as individual airports or airlines … Nonetheless, the Board believes that withholding such information from the public would deny independent researchers the ability to examine all available factors in the database and would make valid comparisons among airports and among some other entities impossible. This lack of information could hamper efforts to understand the nature and potential effects of wildlife threats to aviation and hinder the development of mitigations for those threats ….

“The Safety Board believes that public access to all the data in the FAA Wildlife Strike Database is critical to the analysis and mitigation of the wildlife strike problem, and the Board strongly disagrees with the FAA’s proposal to restrict public access to these data.”


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