Bird strikes, the database and the media

I’m writing from Chicago where we are holding our annual meeting for those who serve on the boards of airports. 

We flew out yesterday; Rev. Jeremiah Wright was on our flight. A year ago he was as recognizable as any man in America and his trips to D.C. were headline news. Now, he is just an anonymous passenger. What a difference a year makes.  

Birds have been much on my mind lately. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has decided to open the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wildlife strike database to the public. Although the FAA has previously stated that non-disclosure leads to better information and even though our members had various views, this decision seemed inevitable and we will work with FAA to ensure that the data is used to best effect to enhance safety and public understanding. 

The early returns on that last point are not encouraging. 

First, on the ride to the airport yesterday, I heard former DOT Inspector General Mary Schiavo pontificating about this on the radio. Rarely have I ever seen a former ranking official use that credential in more irresponsible ways than has Ms Schiavo since she left office. Having her comment on this will only undermine public understanding, but we have come to expect irresponsibility from her. 

Of greater concern is the way the media overall have covered this issue the past few days. Raging headlines about bird strikes increasing at an enormous rate since 1990, with an implication that one can just project that into the future. 

The fact is that the reporting and gathering of information over the past two decades has improved greatly and will of course continue. The fact that more strikes were reported may, or may not, mean more are occurring. It depends. 

And, the fact is that the sample sizes for many airports are so small that an increase of just a few means a large percentage increase. And, if there have been many more flights over those past 20 years out of certain airports than before 1990 does an increase in strikes mean growing problem, or just mean that there were more flights and the rate is the same or even less? 

Airports, airlines, pilots and controllers all have a role to play and all take it seriously. If this data is explained and reported properly, it can lead to rational discussions about the issue, as well as about zoning and land use issues.  Local politicians need to understand that their decisions can actually increase the danger. (The co-pilot of US Airways 1549 addressed this during his testimony in Congress recently.) 

But the media need to do a much better job reporting this and resist the temptation to write the easy story. And will someone, please, resist the temptation to put a microphone in front of Mary Schiavo!

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