NEW YORK (Reuters) - Never mind unruly passengers, baggage fees and wind shear. The real scourges of air traffic these days are black-bellied plovers, herring gulls and yellow-bellied sapsuckers, aviation experts say.
These and other birds have all met their demise crashing into aircraft during takeoff and landing at airports across the United States over the past two years, federal records show.
Since April 2010, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has logged 400 bird strikes, while New York’s LaGuardia tallied 280 and John F. Kennedy International 450. Los Angeles International trailed with 185, records show.
While these collisions seldom end badly for anyone other than the bird, two recent post-takeoff bird strikes forced pilots into emergency landings at Kennedy and Westchester County Airport in New York.
The incidents renewed concerns raised in 2009 when a flock of geese took out two engines of a US Airways jet, forcing Captain Chesley Sullenberger to touch down on the Hudson River.
This week, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand weighed in with legislation that would force federal officials to speed up the removal of Canadian geese coming from a wildlife refuge beside Kennedy Airport.
“We cannot afford to sit back and wait for a catastrophe to occur before cutting through bureaucratic red tape between federal agencies,” Gillibrand said.
Veteran commercial pilot Paul Eschenfelder believes bird strikes continue to mount because the airline industry has failed to view the threat as seriously as other flying hazards.
“Let’s attack this the same way we did wind shear and volcanic ash,” says Eschenfelder, a pilot for three decades who teaches a wildlife training course at Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
“Let’s look at this as the Super Bowl. Right now we don’t have a game plan, we don’t have a coach and there’s no way we’re going to win.”
Pete Scherrer, the manager of Westchester Airport, came up with a plan two years ago to rid his 700-acre airport of not only birds but wildlife that have found their way onto airport runways.
Scherrer hired a full-time wildlife biologist whose job is to destroy habitats that geese, ducks and other birds prefer.
He’s in the midst of a $5 million upgrade of his fence line to keep out foxes, coyotes, deer and the occasional bobcat. He’s moved garbage dumpsters off airport property so they don’t serve as feeding grounds.
When all that fails, Scherrer’s workers break out the heavy ammunition. “We shoot them,” Scherrer said.
Animal-rights groups once protested the idea but not since pilot Sullenberger became a national hero for saving the lives of his 155 passengers, Scherrer says.
“Before the Miracle on the Hudson, we couldn’t even shoot a mosquito,” Scherrer said, referring to Sullenberger’s landing on the Hudson. “But the pendulum swings.”
Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Todd Eastham