Solving the Bird Strike Problem

goosePublic awareness of the danger of bird strikes to aircraft has greatly increased since the January 15 incident in which Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger expertly guided the crippled US Airways Airbus to safety in the Hudson River. On Friday, April 3rd, USA Today published a debate on airline passenger safety due to bird strikes. The newspaper presented the case that even though large bird populations are rising, and thus the risk of catastrophic collisions is also increasing, the federal government is responding by trying to hide the data. In late March, the FAA proposed blocking access to its bird strike database managed by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University on the basis that public access to the terribly complex records would “stifle reporting”. The opposing view, published by USA Today as excerpts from the FAA’s proposed rules, basically established the position that “voluntary reporting is good enough”.
But according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB, 1999), less than 20% of bird strikes are reported annually. How do we raise the profile of reporting, and encourage pilots and aviation workers to comply?

This question was answered by Dekker & Buurma (2005) in a paper to the International Bird Strike Committee in Athens. After all, the catastrophic failure of aircraft due to bird strikes is an international problem that readily crosses international boundaries and cultures, so it should not be a surprise that this issue has been taken up by aviation analysts worldwide. They recommend that we need to do the following to reduce the risks to human populations from bird strikes to aircraft:

  • We need to establish effective standards for defining what a bird strike is,
  • We need to decouple the reporting procedure from the international governance structures (FAA-like agencies as well as insurance providers), so that pilots and airline employees do not have to fear recrimination for their reports, and
  • We need to promote behaviors that encourage awareness and reporting, such as targeted inspections, clear guidelines, ensuring that the reports actually reach the databases, acceptance of the paperwork required by reporting, relieving time pressure so that there is available opportunity for reporting, and remove the reasons why people are fearful to report.

More details are provided in Dekker & Buurma’s paper at

Quality assurance. Ultimately, bird strikes are the currency with which the effectiveness of preventive measures is settled. This applies to all aspects of the bird strike problem: improved impact resistance of aircraft, wildlife policy of airfields (and their surrounding) and operational procedures of airliners…

For the simple reason that the civil aviation authorities do play a double role (condensation point for information and authority that supervises all other parties) the relations are contaminated and dominated by juridical arguments. This means that there is a tendency for national databases to be biased in such a way that liability is excluded. This in turn means that the existing databases do contribute only in a limited way to the scientific, educational and quality assurance goals. If mandatory reporting is to be successful it has to be organised in a different, non punitive way.

Enhanced reporting “could be realised by unlinking the national bird strike databases from the supervising authority… [and then] the emphasis will change from juridical to scientific and educational.

The solution seems simple – remove the punitive penalties for reporting, and possibly institute incentives for accurate reporting. This could create jobs and open opportunities for researchers to investigate the problems more openly. What do we have to lose?

NTSB (1999). National Transportation Safety Board. Safety Recommendations A-99-86 through –94.

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