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In reversal, feds to release data on bird strikes on planes

N.Y. river landing raised concerns; cases have surged since 1990

WASHINGTON – The federal government is reversing itself and plans to release data on the thousands of incidents in which aircraft hit birds, the Department of Transportation said Wednesday.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the decision was reached Tuesday in a meeting with Federal Aviation Administration officials. It came after a 30-day public comment period yielded opposition to a proposal to keep the incidents out of the public eye.

The risk that growing populations of large birds create for commercial aviation has been in the spotlight since a US Airways flight Jan. 15 that struck a flock of Canada geese, which crippled the jet’s engines. The pilot made a dramatic splashdown in the Hudson River, but no one was killed.

After the crash, several news outlets requested information from the FAA’s database, which lists bird strikes and other aircraft impacts with wildlife. The data contain over 100,000 records and date back to 1990.

However, on March 19 the FAA filed a notice that it intended to make the bird strike information off-limits from public inspection. The agency contended that airports and others would be less likely to make critical safety reports about birds if the information was widely disseminated.

The FAA’s proposal was overwhelmingly opposed in public comments filed with the government. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the US Airways accident, wrote that it “strongly disagrees” with the proposal. The information “is critical to the analysis and mitigation of the wildlife strike problem,” said the letter by NTSB acting Chairman Mark Rosenker.

USA TODAY, which had obtained the information despite the agency’s refusal to release it, reported on April 7 that potentially dangerous incidents in which planes hit large birds had climbed dramatically since the 1990s. Populations of large birds such as geese, cormorants and pelicans have surged during that time.

LaHood said he was “a little concerned” about the FAA proposal when he learned about it last month but waited to make a decision until the public had a chance to comment. LaHood’s agency oversees the FAA.

“The public deserves to have this information,” LaHood said. “If our No. 1 priority around the department is safety, we know there are a lot of people who fly and they want to know that it’s going to be safe.”

Airports and others aren’t required to report when a bird strikes a plane. LaHood said it’s “probably not a bad idea” to make reporting mandatory. The government learns of only about 20 percent of bird-plane strikes, the FAA estimates.

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