FAA Backs Off Proposal To Keep Bird-Strike Data Secret

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The FAA said last week that it has decided not to proceed with a proposal that would have designated bird-strike information in the FAA's National Wildlife Aircraft Hazard Database as "protected from public disclosure." The agency said it made the proposal in March "to encourage persons to provide the information to the FAA," citing concerns that information might not be submitted "because of fear that the disclosure of raw data could unfairly cast unfounded aspersion on the submitter." The FAA changed course after reviewing 47 comments from the public, the majority of which were not in favor of secrecy. The FAA said it has determined that releasing the data will not jeopardize aviation safety. The Wildlife Aircraft Strike Web site will be modified "to make the database available to all users consistent with the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and Agency policy," the FAA said. The news prompted a flurry of reports in the mainstream press, many citing statistics from the "newly available database" -- in fact, much of the wildlife-strike data has been publicly available since the information was first collected in 1990, but the FAA's decision now allows users to access all the details of each report. A small amount of data, such as personal phone numbers, will be blocked out.

City papers around the country checked the data on their local airports. Many of the stories cite a dramatic growth in the number of bird strikes, but since the reports are voluntary, it's not clear if the rising numbers reflect more bird strikes or if the strikes are being reported more frequently -- the FAA estimates that it hears of only about one in five strikes. The NTSB has asked the FAA since 1999 to make the reports mandatory, but so far the agency has declined to do so. The FAA said that over the next four months, it will make significant improvements to the database to improve the search function and make it more user-friendly. In its current format, users will only be able to perform limited searches online, but can download the entire database. The FAA also said it will work with the aviation community to find ways to improve and strengthen bird-strike reporting.