- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - A survivor of the jetliner that ditched in the Hudson River after hitting birds and most other public commenters opposed a government proposal to make secret its data on when and where such bird strikes occur.

Public comments about the Federal Aviation Administration’s secrecy proposal ran 5-to-1 against it as the comment period closed Monday. One major group, which some had expected to support the rule, declined to take a position.

The primary trade group for U.S. airports, the Airports Council International-North America, told the FAA that its member airports were split on the issue so it “cannot take a position either supporting or opposing” the secrecy. But it urged the agency “to provide explanatory information to assist the public and media to use the data responsibly” if it decides against imposing secrecy.

Donald C. Jones, of Jacksonville, Fla., who was fished from the Hudson Jan. 15 along with the other 154 people aboard US Airways flight 1549, told the FAA he was “surprised and alarmed” to read its proposal. “This issue needs to be addressed openly, not swept under the rug,” Jones said. Six private pilots and an air traffic controller also were among 35 people who objected in writing to the FAA’s plan.

The Airline Pilots Association, which represents more than 52,000 professional airline pilots, the city of Portland, Ore., which operates three airports, and helicopter-maker Sikorsky Aircraft were among seven commenters who favored the secrecy.

After the Jan. 15 ditching, The Associated Press requested access to the FAA’s bird strike database, which contains more than 100,000 reports of strikes that have been voluntarily submitted since 1990.

While still processing the AP Freedom of Information Act request, the FAA on March 19 quietly published its proposal in the Federal Register and provided 30 days for public comment.

The agency expressed concern that, if the data were released, some airlines and airports would reduce voluntary reporting of bird strikes for fear that the public and news media would misconstrue raw data and “cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter.”

“Drawing comparisons between airports is difficult because of the unevenness of reporting” from airport to airport and the difference in local bird populations they have to deal with, the FAA said.

But Jones, director of an association of endocrinologists, was among several commenters who suggested the remedy for uneven reporting was to make the reports mandatory, not secret.

“Why isn’t reporting of strikes by commercial airlines, private aviation and airports mandatory?” Jones asked the FAA. “How can the FAA ignore the recommendations of the National Transportation Safety Board that reporting strikes be mandatory?” The safety board made that recommendation to the FAA 10 years ago, noting that the database grossly understates the number of strikes.

The FAA says strikes increased from 1,759 in 1990 to 7,666 in 2007.

Opposing the FAA plan, Paul Eschenfelder, president of the aviation consultant Avion Corp. in Spring, Texas, wrote that in 2004 and 2007 a government-industry working group, which was rewriting the FAA’s engine design standards for withstanding bird strikes, “agreed that the FAA wildlife database was unusable due to its incompleteness” and paid Boeing Co. “to develop a cogent database that all agreed was superior.”

The pilots union, the city of Portland, Sikorsky and even the airports council expressed fear the public might misinterpret the data. “This data is complex and nuanced, and could be easily misunderstood or misinterpreted if disclosed in raw form to the public,” wrote Nick Atwell, aviation wildlife manager for the Port of Portland.

Members of the public, however, bridled at that idea.

Robert M. McCauley, a Denison, Texas, attorney with a private pilot’s certificate, objected to the FAA’s “obvious concept that you have been `anointed’ to protect the public from itself.” McCauley said he was “just as anxious to know the location of high volume bird strike areas as I am of geographical areas that exhibit regular hazardous weather tendencies, each of which may well impact my decisions in planning flights and ultimately, my life.”

Roger Maloof, of New Hampshire, who described himself as a mechanical engineer from MIT, wrote that “if we the people know of inadequately protected airports, then we can petition for corrections. Keeping the data secret only protects dangerous airports and endangers the general public. … This is like hiding which roads are more dangerous in winter to protect the interests of the businesses on those roads.”

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