Monday, April 27, 2009

Use Google Alerts to Find Bird and Wildlife Strike News Stories

When the FAA proposed to severely restrict the public's access to the FAA's bird and wildlife strike database in March 2009, it ignited controversy as well as hundreds of news stories related to the proposed policy change. When the DOT and the FAA reversed course the following month, it led to hundreds of other articles, many of them focusing on the strike record of specific airports and airlines.

This spike in interest represented an opportunity to increase's audience by using the media coverage to direct people to bird and wildlife strike information on's web sites and blogs.

The key was that many of these articles allowed readers to leave comments. left comments on many of these articles, making sure that the comments invited the reader to visit an related site.

Finding the articles was particularly easy, with the most important tool being Google Alerts, a free service that allows you tell Google to search for recently published content that contain specific keywords of interest.

The full plan to take advantage of the sudden public attention had three parts:

1. Use Google Alerts to find out what news stories were coming out online (in this case, the search terms [+faa +"bird strike"] were used).

2. Find the articles with the largest potential audience and either post comments to the article (always mentioning at least one of my bird strike blogs or sites).

3. If an article from a medium to large media organization had contact information for the writer of the story, I'd make a point to contact that person by phone or email and offer to provide information or answer questions.

By letting Google do my research for me, I was able to easily find dozens of opportunities to post comments to articles and use those posts to direct readers to some of my resources. In addition, I also found relevant media contacts that I could help or that could help me later.

Each of's comments were a variation of the following message:

Releasing the data was the right thing to do on the part of the FAA. The right thing to do on the part of the public is to use the data as a way to understand a problem and not as the final answer.

Keep in mind that the FAA bird strike database is voluntary, so you can't just look at the raw numbers. Aggressive reporting is only one reason why there may be many reports in the database from a particular airport or airline.

Aviation organizations like the Foundation offer many insights into how one should approach aviation safety data. Many of their bird strike examples are at and

It's not too late to do this kind of thing for your web site or blog. Whether it is for bird strikes or for something else, if you have a blog or web site that needs a boost, and there is a major media frenzy that is relevant to your site or blog, try this three step marketing method yourself. Even if you don't place comments, it is an excellent way to identify reporters that you may want to approach later.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Response to a Bird Strike Protection Idea

A reader responded to comment I made to a 23 April 2009 Washington Post article about the FAA opening up the bird strike database. A reader made a suggestion for a screen or grate that could be placed in front of engine intakes. My response will likely generate additional feedback from the visitors to this site.

Question: Couldn't you engineer a conical grate in front of the jet intake, like this:

      / ||
     / || intake
air flow --> \ ||
      \ ||

That way if a bird struck it wouldn't stay on the grate but roll off due to the air pressure.

Response: The kind of design you have may in fact be effective. However, one must look at the effect that this kind of system in place on an aircraft. Weight, extra maintenance, and design costs are only the beginning. On the other hand, look at what this system would prevent. It may avert the rare serious accident that causes serious injury or death. For US airlines, in the last half century the number of passenger airliners involved in bird strikes that caused serious injury or death has been exactly two (assuming the system worked as designed), and that includes the US Airways ditching in January. Given the rarity of a fatal bird strike event, and especially in the absence of a relatively recent and spectacular fatal event, any suggested change that involves a new design for the entire airliner fleet would not likely be accepted by the FAA.

Any suggested change in aircraft design or procedures would have to survive the regulatory process, which includes the kinds of cost effectiveness issues like the one I just implied. It wouldn't be a situation of a change being rejected because of costs, but rather a rejection based on whether it were not as cost effective as other alternatives.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Why the FAA Should Not Block Access to Bird Strike Data

In March 2009, the FAA quietly made a stunning proposal to make it nearly impossible for the public to access a vital aviation safety resource. Since 1990, the FAA's National Wildlife Strike Database has been one of the most important tools for understanding bird and wildlife strike risks to aircraft. With over 100,0000 records, this database has the potential to benefit everyone who flies by giving the aviation safety community and the general public the opportunity to analyze that data in order to discover ways to reduce the threats to aircraft caused by birds and other wildlife. The FAA states several concerns about the database, but none of their arguments support their proposal to block public access to the data.

The FAA admits that over the last 19 years they have collected and used this data to improve safety. One of their concerns with the current database is 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.

This argument only makes sense if the FAA assumes that there is no way to counter an argument based on a biased or incompetent analysis. This is not the case at all. The tools needed to analyze aviation safety data are widely available. If an analysis is unfair or incorrect it should be easy to review the assumptions, the data, the analysis, and determine whether the conclusions were justified.

Another part of the FAA's argument to make this database unavailable to the public is that when the FAA began collecting this data, it assured the entities submitting the data that the submissions would not be made available to the public. While that may have been true 19 years ago, it apparently hasn't been the case for at least the past 12 years The current online submission form and the paper wildlife strike report forms available since at least 1997 made no such promises of secrecy.

In the proposal, the FAA states releasing this information without benefit of proper analysis would not only produce an inaccurate perception of the individual airports and airlines but also inaccurate and inappropriate comparisons between airports and airlines.

The concern of the FAA is clearly not for individual submitters, since they already redact this kind of personal information from the database. Their concerns appear to be for the reputation of airports and airlines. More importantly, this argument implies that the FAA has the attitude that the public doesn't have the ability to properly analyze the data. It's true that the process of asking and answering aviation safety questions can be an extremely difficult task even for aviation safety experts. It's probably true that if most members of the media or the general public attempt to analyze this bird strike data they may come to conclusions that may unfairly highlight an airline or airport. However, this possibility should not be the FAA's concern. The FAA has many roles, but passing judgment on the ability of the public to scrutinize data is not one of them.

The FAA in their proposal states that it is imperative that nothing should stifle flow of information into this database. However, their proposed action will do exactly that. For aviation safety data to be useful, the flow of information has to go in two directions, not just one. Cutting off the pubic from this information makes it less likely that the aviation safety community will learn from the experiences of others and use that knowledge to enhance safety.

The FAA can and should take steps to ensure the privacy of individuals who voluntarily submit safety data. However, protecting airports and airlines from the potential embarrassment of unfair or incompetent data analysis is not a valid reason to close public access to the database. The database exists in part to help prevent accidents and to help save lives. Putting a wall around this database may help to enhance the public's opinion of airlines and airports, but it will not help protect the public from risk. If the FAA's goal is to save lives then the database should remain available to the public, and they should not be allowed to implement their proposed changes.

The public has an opportunity to make its voice heard on this issue. In an upcoming post, will give you step-by-step instructions from submitting your comments prior to the close of the public comment period on 20 April 2009. will follow this issue closely, and in the next few days will provide detailed guidance on how to submit your comments to the FAA and prevent this policy change. If you have not done so already, please subscribe to the mailing list or get Twitter updates to keep up to date on this critical issue.

FAA Proposal to Change Database Access
Background Information on Bird Strike Threats
Bird Strike Committee USA