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FAA Wants Bird Strike Records Confidential

Inspectors examine items removed from US Airways Flight 1549 as it sits on a barge at Weeks Marina, Jan. 20, 2009, in Jersey City, N.J.
AP Photo/Mel Evans
The Federal Aviation Administration has reversed itself after promising to disclose records about how frequently and where commercial planes are damaged by hitting flying birds.

The agency has formally proposed keeping those government records secret from air travelers on the grounds that if the public found out the information then airports and air carriers wouldn't report damage from birds.

After a rare multiple bird strike forced a US Airways jet to ditch in the Hudson River on Jan. 15, The Associated Press requested access to the bird strike database, which contains more than 100,000 reports of bird strikes that have been voluntarily submitted since 1990.

In a Feb. 18 conference call, FAA officials promised The Associated Press the agency would turn over the data within days. Since then, the FAA has said only that the AP's request for the data under the Freedom of Information Act was "under review."

Last Thursday, the FAA quietly published its proposal to keep the data secret in the Federal Register, a dry compendium of rules and proposals the government publishes daily.

The agency based its proposal on the assumption that the industry it regulates is more concerned about its image and profits than about the safety of its passengers.

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

The FAA is particularly worried that the public will compare the data on various airports. "Drawing comparisons between airports is difficult because of the unevenness of reporting," it said. Not only do some airports do a better job than others of reporting strikes, they also face different challenges based on the bird habitats in their areas, the agency said.

"Inaccurate portrayals of airports and airlines could have a negative impact on their participation in reporting bird strikes," FAA added.

But the agency has rejected another method of dealing with the problem of unequal reporting by airports and airlines.

In 1999, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the voluntary reporting system fails to produce reports on many bird strikes so the FAA database "grossly underestimates the magnitude of the problem." Further, the board quoted Agriculture Department experts as saying "over 50 percent of the reports lack the most critical piece of information about a strike, the species of bird."

As a result, the board recommended that the FAA require that bird strikes be reported. But the FAA refused.

Meantime, the FAA acknowledges that, with increases in air travel and in the populations of dangerous large birds like Canada geese, the problem is growing. It said the annual number of strikes reported has grown from 1,759 in 1990 to 7,666 in 2007.

The FAA bragged in the notice that its wildlife strike database is "unparalleled."

On Wednesday, after last week's FAA proposal to keep the data secret, Melanie Yohe of the FAA told the AP the release of the database was "way overdue" and that "it should be with you right now." She said there is "no reason for it to take this long."

The FAA's proposal is reminiscent of NASA's efforts in late 2007 to withhold air safety data from the AP because it claimed that revealing the information could damage the public's confidence in airlines and affect airline profits. NASA released parts of the data months later under pressure from Congress and the public, disclosing thousands of pages that were deliberately scrambled so no one could identify the pilots who were promised anonymity to participate in the government safety survey.