In November, a Delta Air Lines Boeing 767 carrying 223 passengers lifted off from Salt Lake City International Airport heading for Paris. But officials say six big tundra swans flew into it over the runway, crashing into its nose and engine covers.
No birds survived, and the airport’s chief says it was “a very, very close call” for the jumbo jet.
The birds “didn’t go straight into the engine, which is fortunate. Because at that elevation and that location, the potential for recovery is not great,” Bill Wyatt, executive director of the airport, told the Airport Advisory Board recently. The plane safely landed a few minutes later, and was grounded for inspection and repair.
The Federal Aviation Administration reported nearly 14,500 bird strikes nationally in 2017. Those numbers led the agency to propose drastically increasing the area where all major airports must work to keep wildlife away from planes, expanding it from two miles to five beyond airport boundaries.
The FAA may yank federal funding from airports and their sponsors — such as Salt Lake City — that do not do everything in their power to limit new developments that could attract birds and other wildlife, including denying building permits.
That proposed five-mile boundary includes much of Salt Lake City (to 1300 East on the east, plus all of its northwest quadrant out to the Kennecott tailings ponds).
As an example of the tough choice between federal funds or new development that the city could soon face was a new Amazon facility built within that expanded five-mile, bird-control zone.
Bobby Boswell, a U.S. Department of Agriculture biologist who works under contract with the airport, notes that the new facility included a retention pond that probably would not fully drain within 48 hours after rainfall.
So that would violate proposed rules — because it would be considered a wetland that attracts waterfowl. Salt Lake City could be found in violation of proposed rules if it approved similar projects in the future.
Among the sorts of developments the FAA proposal frowns upon in the five-mile zone are waste-disposal facilities, water management plants (the city has proposed one within the expanded area), wetlands (such as new or expanded duck clubs), golf courses and many agricultural uses.
It also would include “synergistic effects of surrounding land uses.” Boswell cited as an example ponds at the International Center west of the airport where many waterfowl like to spend the day, but then fly to soccer fields east of the airport to spend the night.
The airport already works to chase or catch and relocate birds away from both areas, but new developments that similarly could attract birds may face extra obstacles to approval.
Candace Deavila, wildlife manager for the airport, said another example of changes that create potential problems are at the new state prison being built west of the airport.
“When they started breaking ground for the prison," she said, "we had more occurrences of deer and antelope” leaving that area and ending up inside airport boundary fences.
If small birds can cause problems with aircraft, large deer could cause more. So developments that could change herd habits or migration would need to be scrutinized.
Wyatt said the city is trying to figure out how the proposed FAA rules will affect it and the airport — but it could cost much more for wildlife control in addition to, possibly, forcing the city to block some development. Officials are working on comments about its concerns for the FAA to consider.
The rule changes would mandate action only by cities or governments that control airports. So the new Inland Port Authority, which controls land use now in much of the city’s northwest quadrant, would not be subject to the rules.
But Wyatt said the city would likely be required under proposed rules to protest and oppose any potentially problematic developments in nearby jurisdictions — including reporting them to the FAA so it also could raise concerns.
FAA officials are pushing the new rules “because they believe airports and cities have not done enough," Wyatt said. "I see this as a poke in the eye at this industry for not having done sufficient work.”
But he said Salt Lake City has worked hard for years to control birds and wildlife, something it is forced to do because “this airport is located at the nexus of two major flyways. We are surrounded by nothing but habitat for birds.”
The airport tries to use nonlethal means of scaring away or catching and relocating birds. But if a bird returns and becomes accustomed to staying near the airport, crews may euthanize it.
Wyatt said airport crews have recently stepped up efforts to chase or relocate birds in city-owned preserves west of the airport. “That hasn’t been popular with duck clubs there,” he said.
The former Wingpointe Golf Course at the airport also presents a challenge. In the past 45 days, the airport wildlife crew reported it has chased away 640 geese, 395 ducks and 33 gulls from the closed course.
Despite the city’s control efforts, bird strikes have occurred often.
Deavila said that last year, the airport had 280 bird strikes. Most were minor, but overall they caused at least $674,892 in reported damage.
There were 171 bird strikes with small song birds; 39 with waterfowl, 36 with raptors, 13 with bats and four with pigeons or doves. Another 17 strikes were with unknown types of birds.