US Air Flight 1549 and Animal Welfare

According to Captain “Sully” Sullenberger, both engines of the A-320 carrying the 150 passengers that boarded US Air Flight 1549 at La Guardia were taken down by bird strikes. This generated a slew of articles, interviews and news clips about bird control management in U.S. airports. As it turns out, the FAA has a a set of “bird strike mitigation procedures” in place in an attempt to avoid accidents like the one that downed Flight 1549.

Unfortunately, most of these procedures cause significant stress to the birds. At Boston Logan’s airport, for example, they use propane cannons and other noisemakers to shoo away the birds.  The airports servicing New York and New Jersey uses guns, pyrotechnics and hunting hawks to drive away seagulls and other birds.

Are these “bird mitigation procedures” justified? I believe they are. Although birds certainly suffer as a result of these procedures, it appears that the benefits of engaging in the practice seem to outweigh the costs. According to the FAA, more than 100,000 aircraft have been damaged as a result of  bird strikes. Over 2,700 of them adversely affected the structural integrity of the plane. Imagine how high these numbers would be in the absence of airport bird mitigation procedures. Sometimes the strikes can be deadly. In 1960, for example, an Eastern Airlines plane crashed into Boston Harbor after being hit by a flock of birds. 62 people lost their lives. Air travel is a vital part of modern life. Large segments of the economy depend on the industry. Millions of people fly every year. Surely is is justified to inflict stress on some birds to enhance air safety.

The justification of using other bird mitigation techniques, however, is unclear. At Boston Logan, for example, they sometimes use marksmen to kill the birds with shotguns. Officials at Sacramento also authorize killing birds with shotguns when all else fails. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey kill thousands of birds every year in the marshes and tidal flats surrounding La Guardia and JFK.  Is it really necessary to kill thousands of birds with shotguns in order to increase air safety? Do other more humane methods exist to deal with the problem? How relevant to the moral calculus is it that we were the ones who created this problem in the first place? After all, we knew we were constructing major airports along the traditional bird migration routes.  As is usually the case, we invaded their space, not the other way around.

These practices have already triggered legal responses. Sacramento airport officials were forced to stop shooting birds by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2007. It appears that the practice violates state law. Sacramento officials are now seeking that a law be passed to authorize them to shoot the birds. A local conservation group opposes the measure claiming that the number of birds killed per year at Sacramento International Airport (891) is “ridiculous” and “unnecessary”. Although the group understands that birds have to occasionally be killed to ensure human safety, they contend that this can be achieved in almost every case by making use of non-lethal methods. Furthermore, they worry that “[i]f the bill passes as written…airports are going to take it as carte blancheto kill birds“. 

I’m willing to accept that some birds have to be killed in order to prevent human deaths. On the other hand, I’m not sure that airport officials are going about this the right way. Perhaps it is time for local conservation and animal welfare groups to get more involved in this matter.

Luis Chiesa

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