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Bird strikes cost aviation industry billions per year

By control on November 26, 2013

By Adina Solomon

Birds and aircraft must share the sky, but search the terms “bird” and “plane” together on Google, and you’ll see that the two don’t always get along.

There are bird strikes all over the world, resulting in emergency landings and damaged aircraft. The aviation industry spends a minimum of US$1.2 billion (888 million euros) per year on bird strike damage and delays, estimates John Allan, head of the national wildlife management center, which is part of the UK Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency.

Airports aren’t just hubs where cargo flies to its destination; they are wildlife habitats where birds and other animals thrive – and airports must manage birds in order to protect planes.

“The challenge is as we have clear zones on the approach and departure ends of our airport, as do all airports,” Steve Osmek, airport wildlife biologist at the Port of Seattle, says. “Frequently, if they are in urban areas like we are, it tends to be some of the last real good quality habitat for wildlife, including hazardous wildlife.”

The challenge at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which is operated by the Port of Seattle, and at every airport across the global is reducing the number of birds hanging out at the airport.

Statistics for bird strikes are murky. In 2012, there were 10,726 wildlife strikes in the U.S., the vast majority of which involved birds, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. The UK Civil Aviation Authority reported 2,215 bird strikes.

But reporting standards differ based on country, says Allan, former chairman of the International Bird Strike Committee and a specialist in bird strike prevention in York, England, for the past 25 years.

And that US$1.2 billion spent on bird strike damage and delays? That is Allan’s best calculation, but the number may well reach five times that amount.

David Gamper, director, safety and technical at Airports Council International, says ACI does not collect statistics on bird strikes, though the Montreal-based organization will start to gather statistics in 2014.

Protecting aircraft involves active management of the hazard, Gamper says.

“Not just taking measures on the day but also taking environmental measures to reduce the number of birds present on the airport, and particularly birds that present the greatest threat to aircraft,” he says. “Those tend to be, in general, flocking birds and larger birds. But it very much depends on the situation of the airport.”

Allan says airlines and airports must work together to keep bird strikes to a minimum.

“It’s actually one of the more interesting things about the way the industry is set up in that the airport is responsible for ensuring that these are safe operation environments, so it has to spend the money to do the bird control. But it’s the airline that actually benefits from reduced numbers of bird strikes because it has less damage, fewer delays and so on,” he says. “That’s always been one of the problems, is that disconnect between the people who have to spend the money to prevent bird strikes and the people who actually benefit from it.”

Allan says airlines are beginning to insist that airports seek advice to prevent bird strikes.

“One reasonably serious bird strike can swallow up an entire profit margin on a route for months at a time,” he says.

Gulls, Canadian geese, bigger birds and flocking starlings present the most risk at airports, Allan says.

“There are some very basic principles wherever you are, and you have to adapt them to your situation,” Allan says. “You are not going to do the same sorts of habitat management, for example, in the United Kingdom where it’s warm and wet relatively speaking. Grass grows all year round. Compare that with Saudi Arabia where you’re in the middle of a desert. There is no grass. You’re going to be doing different things.”

Allan says the basic principle is to determine what attracts birds to the airfield and either remove it or deny the birds access to it.

“In a good bird control program, controlling the attraction is 75 percent of the issue,” he says. “Twenty-five percent of the issue is then going in and scaring away what birds are left.”

Osmek seems to follow this advice when he takes steps to keep the birds away at Sea-Tac.