Thursday, April 23, 2009

It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's ...Shhhh!

Pilots, mechanics and others in the air transport system are encouraged to report bird strikes whenever they occur, whether or not they damage the airplane. It's very simple. You fill out a paper or online form, either the Canadian Bird/Wildlife Strike Report or the USBird/Other Wildlife Strike Report. (The difference in the names of the forms apparently confirms the conclusion of this Onion cartoon: Canadian birds are not wildlife). You indicate things like where you were, the phase of flight, how many birds you saw and struck, what was damaged, and how much it cost the company in various ways. You can even send what's left of the bird in to have its age sex and species identified.

The government collects the data and from it can derive safety recommendations to pilots, strategies for bird reduction at airports, and determine the economic impact of birdstrikes. I suppose the data is also used by lobbyists, the news media, ornithologists, airport planners, people selling bird deterring devices, and anyone with an interest in birds, airplanes or the interactions thereof. It's like any other data the government collects: people use it to study things, convince people of things and write sensational news stories.

Well no more, at least not if you want to study the wildlife kind of birds. The FAA has announced plans to seal birdstrike report records. That's the USA Today story. The Federal Register notice is here (PDF). They say that releasing the details of birdstrikes could "produce an inaccurate perception" of the risks birds pose to airplanes and "unfairly cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter." They feel that that keeping the data secret would encourage more people to contribute to the voluntary database.

I had a discussion with some airline and media folks and to my surprise many thought it was a good idea to make the data secret. I assume the data will still be somehow available to the people who have to make spending decisions regarding bird deterrents, so it is just the secondary users of the data who will suffer having it withdrawn. But if the government collects the data, the government processes the data, the government allocates spending for birdstrike reduction and the government assesses the results, where does this leave the voters who have to evaluate the government? Will we be told if birdstrikes are up or down this year? That the bird eradication program is working? I offended someone in the earlier discussion who felt I was comparing soldiers to pigeons, when I said that hiding war casualty statistics might also alleviate fear in the population. They could just tell us that the surge is working. And it's not like the birds are going to study our statistics to find weaknesses in our defenses or exploit unease in the population. But regardless of the orders of magnitude separating A320 vs. pigeon from soldier vs. shrapnel, how is it a good strategy to restrict data about bad things in order to keep people from worrying about it?

Those that looked at the link for the US birdstrike form will have seen that, curiously, the data is collected by Embry Riddle University, not by the FAA itself. I suppose that will have to change. Or perhaps ER will collect the data, give it to the government and then also quietly give it to people with legitimate research uses for it.

Will the US now not comply with the ICAO birdstike reporting procedures? "Sorry, but that data is for our use only and cannot be shared with the international aviation community?"

The thrust of the supporters' argument seems to be that the media are morons ("a majority of press can’t even figure out where 12A is, much less know what type of aircraft they are flying") and might misinterpret the data to report that airline A or airplane Z was safer because it had fewer birdstrikes than the competition. Here's an article that discusses the "shocking" number of birds around airports. The limited ability of the media to understand a story on deadline is legend, but so is its short attention span, mirroring that of the public. I suspect the "airplane felled by birds" story has pretty much run its course and that if the FAA hadn't told them they couldn't look at it, media interest in the birdstrike database would have fallen to zero pretty quickly.

Pilots, would you be discouraged from filing a birdstrike report based on the possibility that the local paper would report "A struck a starling just below the windscreen on approach to today. The aircraft was not damaged and the pilot landed the airplane safely"? Naturally the article would quote a fuel truck driver saying "yup, those starlings are all over the place here," and wrap up by reminding readers that birds were responsible for the forced landing of a US Airways A320. I'd think it was pretty funny, even if the article said I "was unable to avoid" striking the bird, as if it was a matter of my competence at starling evasion.

I have some funny quotes about bird strikes and prevention measures, but I think I'll put them in another post, so as not to "discourage you from volunteering information" on the above question.


Anonymous said...

from the inside... things may have changed after someone above the faa wankers cracked the whip. read the new secretary of transportation is feed up with the faa's K-rap! so i think the data will be public. good luck getting into a jazz plane, looking forward to giving ya a clearance to land. of course, you'd have to be in the crj, see ya then.

Guy said...

I think the secret bird strike data is pure, unmitigated stupidity. If it's not a matter of national security or personal privacy, all government data should be public. After all, we paid for it.

Angus said...

Hard to imagine any pilot would worry about a bird strike report being made public...unless he/she did something very dumb. Perhaps a solution in the U.S. would be the option to tie the BS report to an ASRS submission. Then the data could be public but the details remain confidential (ie at 500'AGL and 350 KIAS a nasty Canada Goose rose up and hit the A/C...)

dpierce said...

The thrust of the supporters' argument seems to be that the media are morons ...... More like sensationalists that are out to create a story (and a dollar) at the expense of reality.

In general, I'm not a fan of hiding information simply on the basis that it might be misinterpreted. A lot of information collected in the US that deals with race is overhandled due to this concern.

Sure, people will abuse information, but you deal with the abuse rather than hide the data. Just like you don't shut down the Internet because some people steal music on it, or shut down the highways because there's car theft.

G said...

Re: " is it a good strategy to restrict data about bad things in order to keep people from worrying about it?"

It's common practice already. Have you studied for example, how the unemployment definitions are "massaged" to sanitize the high rates? Or how the recent bank reports are allowed to report toxic debt and capital on hand to disguise how near failure many are?

Likewise war casualties - both "ours" and "theirs."

Is this a ridiculous idea to seal bird strike data. Of course. Is it already being done? Definitely...

jinksto said...

Interesting point G regarding banks.

On the other hand those reports are so complex in the first place that 99% of the population wouldn't know a thing about them if not for some media hound "massaging" the report into something that will cause the economy as a whole to take yet another dive.

The economy is good news and sneaky, thieving banks are REALLY good news. Even if they report exactly the same numbers that they have for the last 30 years no industry hack worth her salt is going to let that slow down a good story.

Just call the report "massaged" call it "misleading" call it "complex" say that it "disguises how near failure they are" and suddenly you have people repeating your story everywhere... maybe even posting links to YOUR story and bumping your bonus for next year.

Hiding data isn't going to change anything. It'll just put people with a real hunger for knowledge from checking the facts that are spewed by the media (both sides) in an ever increasing spiral of sensationalism and suffering.

Aviatrix shares a link from the Onion. I've found myself lately getting confused about whether I'm on CNN or MSNBC or FOX or The Onion and thinking, "this has to be a joke... right?"

steve said...

Government = Politicians = Pathalogical liars.
Anyone who believes that ANY government department ANYWHERE in the world, is totally honest, truthful and open, in it's dealings with the people it's SUPPOSED to serve, is naive in the extreme.
They tell you what they want to and protect their little self-serving don't get me started on airport "security"...Jamaica?, she was quite willing!

sorry, couldn't resist an old "gag"

Garrett said...

The obvious solution to the problem of under-reporting is to make the reporting mandatory as the NTSB has already suggested.

Anonymous said...

You're correct, 1st anonymous. It will be public Friday.

As it should have been all along.

Wayne Conrad said...

Open government is necessary (but not sufficient) to keeping government power in check.

5400AirportRdSouth said...

I don't know, I think I'd rather risk scaring a few people and let the truth be known. I mean ,who gets to decide what is too "scary"?

Its the very principle of freedom that we get to choose things that are sometimes scary, unhealthy or not popular at that particular moment.

Sarah said...

Ah, the furor has opened the database.
Search here and here is the main page.

There were 68 strikes involving the dreaded Canada Goose, one air carrier serious, and one single engine airplane ( unknown homebuilt type ) destroyed by a single bird.

Callsign Echo said...

I recent news reports indicate the FAA and Riddle are making that info public again.

Callsign Echo said...

aaaand, I just got to the bottom of the comments and saw that 3 ppl got there ahead of me.

Anonymous said...

I have written letters to the FAA and Mayors to let them know I have invented a safe humane and inexpensive way to eradacate geese from around airports. I am awiaiting a response. it would take only a matter of weeks for the eradacation program to begin. An infastructure has to be created. Then meetings with top officials to inform them of the program and how and when it will be implimented. I have the sysytem in place in two locations with reports of 100% success.