FAA to block public access to raw bird strike data

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FAA tomorrow will issue a "proposed order" to block the public from gaining access to voluntarily reported wildlife strike reports, including bird strikes.

At issue is the continued flow of incident information from airlines, pilots and airports, the agency explains. The submissions are the heart of the agency's wildlife hazard database, a tool in place for nearly two decades and already populated with more than 100,000 records of strikes, each record having more than 100 separate data fields.

"As a result of these collection efforts, the FAA has a wildlife strike database that is unparalleled," writes acting associate administrator for airports, Catherine Lang.

Concern on the topic reached a crescendo in January when US Airways Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River after striking one or more Canada geese on departure from LaGuardia Airport. No one was killed in the accident.

The FAA says the number of strikes reported annually since the database was created has increased 336%, from 1,759 in 1990 to 7,666 in 2007. Along with an increased awareness of the issue, FAA explains the numbers have likely climbed due to an increase in both the number of aircraft operations and number of "hazardous wildlife species".

In addition to analysing trends including seasonal strike fluctuations, geographical distribution of strikes and damage caused, the agency uses the data to develop better wildlife management strategies for individual airports and to create aircraft certification standards "that take into account the unique hazard posed by wildlife threats".

Generic strike information is compiled by the FAA and other federal agencies and distributed once per year.

The FAA says requests for data from the public "have typically been for specific data fields, individual airports or detailed portions of the database" and that responses from the agency "have addressed each request individually and adequately".

However, the agency cautions public analysis of bits and pieces of the data could lead to inaccurate portrayals of airports and airlines, which could have a negative impact on their participation in reporting bird strikes.

"The agency is concerned that there is a serious potential that information related to bird strikes will not be submitted because of fear that disclosure of raw data could unfairly cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter," Lang writes.

The proposed order, slated for release in tomorrow's Federal Register, appears to be a largely a formality given the statutory authority the FAA already has to shelter safety or security-related information from Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests. For example, both the agency's flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) and aviation safety action program (ASAP) databases are protected from FOIA requests by regulation, though the information can be subpoenaed.

The agency however says it will consider public comments submitted over the next 30 days or possibly more, and may "change the proposal in light of the comments we receive".