When Animals and Airplanes Collide

  • Airport Operations Manager Todd Laps uses pyrotechnics - and sometimes just plain old honking the car horn - to harass birds and keep them away from the airport. (Photo by Julie Grant)

If you bite your nails every time
you’re on a plane – the increasing
number of bird strikes might give
you one more reason for concern.
Julie Grant reports on efforts to
prevent airplanes from hitting birds:

Transcript

If you bite your nails every time
you’re on a plane – the increasing
number of bird strikes might give
you one more reason for concern.
Julie Grant reports on efforts to
prevent airplanes from hitting birds:

Todd Laps probably never envisioned that he’d spend his days harassing
birds. He’s operations manager at the Akron-Canton Airport in Ohio.

(sound of a plane landing)

But for the past few years, he’s started doing everything he can to keep
birds off the runway.

(sound of a horn)

Sometimes he just chases them in a truck while honking the horn.

“If you chase them around enough, they get tired of it, and they leave.
But you may have to drive around blowing the horn for five minutes to get
them to leave.”

(sound of a horn)

It’s not that Laps hates birds. He’s actually trying to save them –
from getting sucked into plane engines. That’s pretty bad for the birds.
It can also damage the planes.

The Federal Aviation Administration says bird strikes have killed more than
200 people worldwide since 1988 – and cost the U.S. aviation industry
hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ever since geese took out both engines in US Airways flight 1549 earlier
this year – leading to that dramatic flight into the Hudson River –
more airports are paying attention to the surrounding wildlife.

Mike Begier is national coordinator of the Airport Wildlife Hazards Program
with the US Department of Agriculture.

He says populations of larger birds – such as geese – are increasing. At
the same time, there are more planes in the air then there used to be.

“So we’re competing for the same airspace. So it’s a probability.
The more times you fly, the more chances you have to strike something.”

Begier says most airports were built a little outside of the city, in
green, wet areas. And those places attract lots of birds and animals.

“Birds may want to stop over there and rest. Airports that do not have
adequate fencing wind up being a refuge for deer or coyote.”

At the Akron airport, they’ve recently cut down 40 acres of trees to make
the area less attractive to wildlife. They’ve also started mowing more
to discourage bugs. Without bugs, there are fewer small mammals and birds.
The folks in Akron think it’s made a difference reducing the number of
accidents.

Airports are not required to report wildlife strikes. Some do voluntarily.
When the FAA opened up its records on collisions between planes and birds
and coyotes and even alligators this year, it looked like the number of
accidents was on the rise at some airports.

But Begier says those numbers don’t provide an accurate picture.
Airports don’t have to report them, so as many as 80% of strikes still go
unreported.

“So when we see these high numbers of strikes, it’s important to
realize that the airports are actually being proactive, that they’re
reporting their strikes – which is a very good thing.”

Begier gives the example of JFK airport in New York. It’s in the top ten
airports nationwide reporting the most wildlife strikes. That sounds bad.
But because JFK voluntarily reported accidents, biologists were able to
figure out part of its problem. When the nearby bayberry bushes were ripe,
they were attracting lots of birds. By removing the bushes, they reduced
the number of accidents.

Researchers are also experimenting with higher tech solutions at airports.
They’re trying laser lights to harass birds away from hangars, using
small radar units to track birds and warn planes of approaching danger, and
using pulsating lights on planes to mimic bird predators.

But for USDA wildlife biologist Rebecca Mihalco, the old fashioned methods
are the most rewarding – at least today. She works at the
Cleveland-Hopkins airport and just caught a red-tailed hawk.

“I’m always excited when I catch a hawk. I guess I’m a kid that
way.”

Mihalco drove the hawk far away from the airport and released it.

But to avoid so many accidents with wildlife, airports will have to do
better than catching them one at a time or chasing after birds and honking
at them.

For The Environment Report, I’m Julie Grant.

Related Links

Paying for Risks on the Rails

  • This train in Graniteville, South Carolina, crashed while carrying chemicals called "toxic inhalation hazards." Transporting these chemicals is extremely dangerous, and rail companies think chemical companies should share some of the insurance burden. (Photo courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency)

Toxic Inhalation Hazards are a class of chemicals with a notorious name: if you inhale them, you die.
On the flip side, they’re useful: Take chlorine. It purifies drinking water. Another is anhydrous ammonia. It’s used for corn fertilizer.
The government feels some toxic inhalation hazards are so important it forces railroads to ship them, even though insurance is expensive.
Shawn Allee says rail lines now want the chemical industry to chip in:

Transcript

Toxic Inhalation Hazards are a class of chemicals with a notorious name: if you inhale them, you die.
On the flip side, they’re useful. Take chlorine: it purifies drinking water. Another is anhydrous ammonia. It’s used for corn fertilizer.
The government feels some toxic inhalation hazards are so important it forces railroads to ship them, even though insurance is expensive.
Shawn Allee says rail lines now want the chemical industry to chip in:

To understand why the railroad industry wants help with insurance, you should know what happened in Graniteville, South Carolina.
Phil Napier is Graniteville’s fire chief. Napier tells me, one night in January 2005, he got paged about a train wreck.
He hopped in his truck and before long, he found the train engineer.

“I stopped to roll the window down and this gentleman told me they had a chemical leak and he couldn’t breathe and he fell to the ground. And immediately, it hit me. It basically took my breath and all I remember is taking a U-turn heading north but I ended up south. There’s a time-zone in there that I have no memory.”

When Napier came to, he got word from his radio: the train carried chlorine and a toxic cloud was spreading.
Napier evacuated Graniteville. Later, he got a look by helicopter.

“We did a flyover. I mean, it was like a Twilight Zone – you could see cars all up and down the highways, with the doors open.”

Nine people died in the Graniteville derailment and chlorine spill. Since then, the railroad industry worried an accident like this could ruin them.

“The lesson we drew from that was, if there is a major catastrophe by the railroad carrying this material, could be forced into bankruptcy and be forced out of operation.”

That’s Ed Hamberger, the head of the Association of American Railroads.
Hamberger calls the Graniteville accident a tragedy for the town and a financial mess for the railroad responsible – Norfolk Southern.

“The accident in Graniteville resulted in damages of 400 to 500 million dollars.”

Norfolk Southern won’t confirm the figures, but consider this: it’s still in court over an incident involving nine deaths.

Experts say if a similar derailment happened in the middle of a big city like Chicago, it could kill at least 10,000 people.
Hamberger says railroads can’t insure against that.
You might think they would refuse to carry toxic inhalant hazards, but the government says they have to – because rail has the best safety record.

“The freight railroad industry has what is known as a common carrier obligation to carry these toxic by inhalation materials. Several of our members have said if they were not forced to, they would not carry it because of that liability threat.”

Hamberger says if the government won’t lift the obligation, it’s fair to require chemical companies to pay some insurance.
And, he says, it would make the public safer.
The argument goes, if chemical companies paid more to insure against transportation accidents, they’d create safer chemicals.

“With regard to the argument the chemical industry needs an incentive to make safer products, frankly, we have all the incentive in the world.”

Marty Durbin is with the American Chemistry Council.
He says chemical companies already pay insurance against accidents in their factories.
And they are looking for alternatives to chlorine and other toxic inhalant hazards.
Durbin says, besides, when trains leave their factories financial risk should be out of their hands.

“You have to have liability throughout the chain that helps motivate safety improvement.”

The chemical and railroad companies will battle this out in front of government agencies for a while.
In the meantime, each year, trains will make 100,000 shipments of toxic inhalation hazards along the nation’s railroads, even if some freight rail companies don’t want to.

For the Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Study Seeks to Reduce Car/Deer Collisions

It’s that time of year again. Car/Deer collisions are at their highest in the months of October, November, and December. It’s a dangerous and expensive problem. Insurance companies paid out more than one hundred million dollars last year in Michigan alone because of car/deer crashes. Now a new study is looking at ways the collisions can be reduced. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Wendy Nelson reports: