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2011 North American Birdstrike Conference in Niagara Falls

By Jim Hall
September 15th, 2011


Good morning and thank you for that wonderful introduction. 

First I want to thank my good friend Ken Paskar for inviting me here.  I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak to your organization, and continue my interest in the important work you do to keep our skies and runways safe.

As you heard from my introduction, my primary experience with bird strikes came from my time as NTSB Chairman. 

The NTSB has been the eyes and ears of the American people at accident sites for over four decades. Congress believed, when it established the Board, in 1967, that an independent investigative agency was needed to investigate accidents in all modes of transportation - aviation, highway, marine, rail, pipeline, and hazardous materials; to make recommendations to improve transportation safety and prevent future accidents; as well as to provide oversight to the Department of Transportation modal administrations.

The NTSB involves all of the organizations with an interest in a particular accident - the regulators, the airlines, the airports, the manufacturers, the unions - through what is known as the party system.  The primary goal of every investigation is to prevent other accidents from occurring by conducting thorough, independent, and objective investigations. Technical and scientific experts like yourselves are often the backbone of that investigative process.  Finally, at an investigation’s conclusion, we recommend ways to correct the problems found.

This system has worked well and has helped give the American people confidence in their transportation system.

But, maintaining that confidence requires constant vigilance by everyone in the aviation community - the FAA must properly regulate the industry; the airlines and airports must ensure the safety of their operations; the manufacturers must design and build safe aircraft; and the NTSB must reassure the public that there is an independent review of how well those entities fulfill their responsibilities.

By design, this interrelationship creates a healthy tension between the participants - and it has proven to work. 

I know firsthand that organizations like yours play an important role in this system. During my tenure as Chairman, it was readily apparent that independent scientific experts are a vital part of providing the objective analysis necessary to improve safety.


I cannot stress enough how much these two aspects of investigation – independence and objectivity – are vital to a safe system.  I highlight them because, with respect to the threat of bird strikes, your organization is in many ways the only source of objective, independent analysis.


I come today to speak to your organization concerning what I believe to be an unfortunate precedent and threat to the independence and objectivity you bring to your work.   

As many of you may know, there is ongoing construction of a waste transfer station – a known bird attractant – that will be placed approximately 2,206 feet off of the end of LaGuardia’s runway 31.


Despite the fact that LaGuardia is plagued, by virtue of its location, with bird strikes – and very luckily avoided disaster with the Miracle on the Hudson – political powers at the city have decided that this station must be built at this location to meet waste management needs.


If completed, hundreds of refuse-laden trucks will arrive at the NSMTS depositing more than 3000 tons of garbage daily, which will then be carried away on barges. The sights and smells of this enormous waste transfer station will attract a large bird population, resulting in an unacceptable and avoidable risk to aircraft.


I have two fundamental problems with how the FAA has approached this problem.  First, from a practical standpoint, the agency did not follow its own procedures and regulations for dealing with this potential hazard. This departure from precedent and well-founded rules to approve a known hazard is inexplicable and troubling, as I'll detail in a moment. 


But more broadly, the FAA has also failed to follow the spirit of its own mission.  The agency is charged with ensuring the safety of the traveling public.  That is its first and only statutory mandate. 


And while it can play bureaucratic games and manipulate regulations to meet its ulterior agendas, such behavior violates the agency's mission: to protect Americans in the air and on the ground from unnecessary and unacceptable safety risks. 


Let me provide some background.  While the City of New York was designing and planning the NSMTS, at no point did it consider the bird strike risks associated with garbage transfer stations of the type they planned for the end of runway 31. 


Rather, the City was concerned first and foremost with meeting the waste management goals it had set for itself a few years earlier. 


What is more striking is the actions of the FAA with respect to this project, as that agency should have no interest in the NSMTS other than the effect it will have on safety. 


Going against its own mission statement to protect the flying public (and those of us on the ground) from such hazards, the FAA ignored the well known bird hazard risks and its own regulations and failed to assess the effect that the placement of a new food source directly at the end of the busy runway would have on safe air operations. 


Bird strike experts who have been directly involved in administering the FAA regulations for years are perplexed that the FAA had not even considered the obvious dangers of a bird strike at NSMTS. Only after pressure from Congress did the FAA undertake a shortened wildlife study that failed to follow FAA’s own regulations and guidance; throwing the responsibility into the City’s hands to try and reduce the bird strike risks associated with the NSMTS. 


I’m sure that it is evident to experts like you that the risk assessment methodologies and conclusions used in the Panel Report cannot be substantiated in this particular case.  In the first place, this station’s location on LaGuardia’s Runway Protection Zone or RPZ should have ended the matter before it began. Instead, the FAA claims that it is outside the RPZ. 


But as for the bird hazard process itself, the FAA and USDA did not seem to take the matter seriously.   For instance, the FAA’s advisory calls for at least a 10,000-foot distance between a bird attractant like this garbage facility and a runway.  The NSMTS is 2,206 feet from runway 31. In assessing bird activity in the area, the FAA used just 2 months of data, February and March, 2010.  February and March are months with a low number of bird strikes.  A full annual baseline survey is required by the FAA’s own guidance to ensure an accurate measurement of itinerant bird populations. 


And contradicting the FAA's claim that because this station will be enclosed it poses no risk, in February of 2010 the FAA itself found that fully enclosed garbage transfer stations are just as attractive to birds as stations open to the air.  This study was released BEFORE the FAA issued the Panel Report on the North Shore Marine Transfer Station, yet the agency makes no mention of this finding in its final report.  Why doesn’t the FAA make an attempt to reconcile these two findings from its own studies?  This conspicuous absence of frank discussion about this issue is puzzling. 


In fact, the FAA concluded that there will actually be a LOWER bird hazard after building this garbage facility than if no facility existed at all.  For instance, see this risk matrix, from the final FAA/USDA study regarding the station   According to this matrix, the risk to the traveling public will actually be lower if this bird attractant is introduced and its harmful effects are mitigated, as opposed to if the risk is never introduced in the first place.  The agency claims that the mitigation mechanisms it prescribes will improve safety from the baseline levels we are at today with no facility in operation.


 But construction is underway and these measures have not yet been implemented.  Furthermore, many are inadequate to the task at hand.  For instance, one mitigation requirement is that the City hires a biologist expert to monitor the on-site activities.  I don’t think it is possible for one full-time biologist, no matter how well trained, to be there at all hours that flights will be occurring over this facility.  Clearly this is an inadequate attempt to streamline a project without seriously considering the risks it poses.


The study itself appears to be a token effort to appease those who were concerned about the effect the NSMTS would have on safety.  Many were encouraged when the FAA and USDA first announced they would be examining the risks associated with this station.   I believe that such studies are opportunities: conducting such an analysis can vitally improve our knowledge about safety risks and ensure that every precaution is taken to avoid the unnecessary loss of human life.  The NTSB is limited to making recommendations in hindsight, after a fatal tragedy, so I am always heartened when an agency can be prospective and assess risks before they come into existence. 

As already mentioned, the FAA and USDA limited the timeframe of the study examining only two months of data, and the panel of experts they put together were asked to assume that the station would be built. 

The scope of this study, further, was not broad enough to be a serious evaluation.  Tying the hands of experts and assuming your conclusions is no way to objectively identify and address safety risks.  Again, it appears the study was intended to be just enough to quiet critics and serve as a rubber stamp for this project.  Rather than embrace the opportunity that such a study provides, the agencies rushed to give this transfer station the FAA ‘s acquiesce without the proper scientific analysis and reflection that is crucial to our system's safety, so that Mayor Bloomberg can announce to a nervous public that the transfer station has been “vetted by the FAA.”

In sum, we have a striking situation: the agencies responsible for public safety have made a determination that has allowed the construction of a known bird attractant on LaGuardia’s Runway Protection Zone without following its own rules and guidance.  In doing so, they ignored the warnings from several of your membership, and conducted their own study only after outside pressure was exerted on them to do so.  When they finally did so, they concluded that the airport will actually be safer if this facility is constructed.  I have never seen the FAA behave in this manner, allowing the creation of a new hazard and then mitigating it after the fact. 


I have no doubt that safety and science were subverted by politics and local interests, and the traveling public will bear the cost of this unfortunate precedent. Despite the fact that the station is currently under construction, this project should be terminated in the interest of safety.


So how do we correct this problem so that situations like the one at the North Shore Marine Transfer Station do not arise again? 


First, the North Shore Marine Transfer Station situation illustrates the importance of the independence of the Wildlife Hazard assessment community. 

With respect to NSMTS, the USDA was the agency both deciding that a Wildlife Biologist and Management Plan was necessary and receiving the contract to provide the Wildlife Biologist and develop and implement the Management Plan.  The conflict of interest that is inherent in being involved both in oversight and in implementation is insurmountable. Who knows what the outcome of the Panel Report would have been if the USDA did not stand to obtain additional business?  Thus, strict enforcement by the FAA  of the guidance that limits USDA to an oversight role is necessary.   


Second, it is my belief that the North Shore Marine Transfer Station situation illuminates the holes in the FAA’s regulatory scheme with respect to bird strikes as a result of off-airport structures.  The primary issue is that the FAA, as a whole, has not taken the issue of bird strikes as seriously as it should.  Its focus has been on getting the airports to develop Wildlife Hazard Assessments and Wildlife Hazard Management Plans, while ignoring the fact that bird attractants are popping up off the airport’s property. 


There seems to be a gap in the FAA’s regulations and guidance (or the FAA’s political will) with respect to how to handle off-airport structures and land uses that interfere with navigable airspace because they are wildlife hazards.  The fact of the matter is that the FAA should use its authority under 49 USC 44718 and 14 CFR, Part 77 to require that proponents of off-airport structures and land uses located within 5 miles of an airport must perform a wildlife hazard assessment.


Third, and perhaps most importantly, organizations like yours can continue to do what you’ve been doing since your formation. 



Your participation in the regulatory process is vital to ensure that all parties are fairly and adequately represented.  Groups of your size and influence are the perfect mechanism to ensure the government engages in proper scientific discourse.  Your participation is vital to the transparency and equity that our system needs, so I encourage you to continue your activities and strengthen your relationships with local, state and federal government.  As important stakeholders in this process, you are in a unique position to be an advocate for those issues that for one reason or another have slipped through the fingers of our regulators. 


I believe the regulators, such as the FAA in the case of the NSMTS, could benefit from the “top cover” organizations such as the Bird Strike Committees can provide to overcome political pressures that are contrary to their regulatory requirements and back politically contentious situations with expert, science-based reason.


Our aviation system is the safest in the world.  With your help, I believe we can make it something more: the best it can be.  If we do so, we will have provided an enormous service to the traveling public, the taxpayers whom we’re accountable to, and the country at large.


Thank you again for giving me the opportunity to speak this evening and I look forward to working with you all towards a better and safer future.

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