Airport bird alert: SL International incidents have tripled in past few years

Published April 24, 2009 11:17 pm
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Airplane collisions with birds have nearly tripled at Salt Lake City's main airport since 2000, according to Federal Aviation Administration data released for the first time Friday.

The trend at Utah's largest airport mirrors similar growth in so-called bird strikes over the past decade at 13 major U.S. airports, all of which saw at least a doubling of incidents involving commercial and private airplane crashes with wildlife, mostly birds.

Utah has seen a total of at least 1,152 airplane-wildlife strikes since 1990, the data show. All but 40 of those happened at Salt Lake City International Airport and 98 percent of them involved birds. And while nationally 11 people have died in aircraft collisions with birds or deer since 1990, only four incidents in Utah resulted in injuries, all involving private aircraft where one person was hurt, one in 1990, one in 1996 and two in 1997.

The first disclosure of the entire FAA bird strike database, including the first-ever release of the locations of strikes, occurred largely due to pressure after the dramatic ditching of a US Airways jet in the Hudson River after bird strikes knocked out both of its engines on Jan. 15.

All 155 people aboard that Airbus A320 survived when pilot Chesley ''Sully'' Sullenberger ditched the powerless jet into the river without breaking it up.

The Beehive State averaged 32 reported wildlife strikes a year between 1990 and 1999, compared with about 90 a year between 2000 and 2008, according to the data. By comparison, Salt Lake International Airport averages about 400,000 takeoffs and landings in a normal year.

''I don't want to say they don't happen, but damaging strikes are relatively rare, and strikes where they bring down a plane are even more rare,'' said Mike Linnell, Utah director of U.S. Department of Agriculture wildlife services and a world expert on bird-plane collisions.

Bird strike rates are being driven up nationally by the twin factors of rising populations of some bird species living in urban areas and growth in U.S. air traffic, Linnell and others said.

The Salt Lake area's largest airport faces unique challenges being located near the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake, which attracts millions of migratory birds each fall and spring. Where bird species were identified, data indicates Utah bird strikes most commonly involved gulls, horned larks, kestrels and geese.

Linnell called Salt Lake City International ''one of the most aggressive airports out there'' in bird-control efforts.

An airport spokesperson said those efforts include extensive "hazing" of birds, including the regular firing of 16 cannons at strategic locations and disrupting of nesting and food sources, trapping and relocating birds and limited killing of birds that pose persistent problems.

The airport also employs a full-time biologist to monitor bird and other wildlife populations, both on airport grounds and surrounding private lands, said spokeswoman Barbara Gann.

The few Utah wildlife strikes that didn't kill birds were most likely to occur on runways and involve foxes, mule deer and skunks.

The FAA list, published on the Internet at http://wildlife.pr.erau.edu/public/index.html" Target="_BLANK">http://wildlife.pr.erau.edu/public/index.html, details more than 89,000 incidents since 1990, including 28 cases since 2000 when a collision with a bird or other animal such as a deer on a runway was so severe that the aircraft was considered destroyed.

Topping the list of airports where planes were either substantially damaged or destroyed by birds since 2000 were John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with at least 30 such accidents and Sacramento International Airport in California with at least 28 accidents. Kennedy, the nation's sixth-busiest airport, is located amid wetlands that attract birds, and Sacramento International, the nation's 40th busiest, abuts farms whose crops draw birds.

tsemerad@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">tsemerad@sltrib.com

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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