APRIL 24, 2009
In a victory for transparency, the nation’s transportation secretary has overruled a major government agency’s decision to keep secret records involving flying birds that damage commercial planes.
The topic sparked worldwide interest earlier this year when a pilot was forced to land a plane with 155 passengers in the Hudson River after engines were disabled by a flock of geese. The plane had just taken off from a New York airport when the pilot radioed air traffic controllers that he had experienced a bird strike and declared an emergency.
Media outlets around the country launched investigations into the frequency of such bird encounters and requested records, under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The agency initially agreed to disclose the information but subsequently revoked the offer, claiming it would keep airport and air carriers from reporting damage caused by birds.
This week Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood overruled the FAA’s attempt to withhold the records, ordering the information to be posted on the internet by week’s end. LaHood, who as a congressman sat on the House Intelligence Committee for 8 years, reasoned that if CIA torture memos were made public bird-strike reports should also be available.
The newly released FAA records reveal that airplane collisions with birds have more than doubled at 13 major U.S. airports since 2000 with New York’s Kennedy Airport and California’s Sacramento International reporting the most incidents with serious damage.
Incidents doubled at some of the nation’s busiest airports, including New Orleans, Houston, Kansas City, Orlando and Salt Lake City. In all, nearly 90,000 bird strikes have been reported since 1990, including several dozen cases in which a collision with a bird or other animal—such as a deer—on a runway was so severe it destroyed the aircraft.
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