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Competition in the air: birds versus aircraft

A spike of incidents in 2017 has not been attributed to any single cause

A total of 48 bird strikes occurred at Malta international Airport last year, 19 more than in the previous year. The flight delays inconvenience passengers and cost airlines time and money.  

Malta International Airport is bracing itself for another busy bird migration season: as the number of flights continues to increase it will also have a major job keeping birds away from the aircraft.

A total of 48 bird strikes occurred at the airport last year, 19 more than in the previous year, a spokesman for the MIA told The Sunday Times of Malta. The average number of bird strikes between 2014 and 2016 was 33.

Any bird strike is taken seriously by airlines as even a small bird can cause damage to a plane. Strikes tend to be most worrying when they involve larger and heavier birds or when flocks of birds are involved, as well as when strikes occur in aircraft engines. 

Because each strike requires the aircraft to be inspected, this usually leads to delays and inconvenience to passengers who may even miss connecting flights. It is estimated that bird strikes cost the global aviation industry about €1 billion every year.

In 2016, MIA was ordered to pay Air Malta €250,000 in damages following a bird strike involving a flock of birds in an incident that went back to 2004.

The MIA spokesman said the majority of strikes in Malta “involve birds which are small in size, bearing no consequences on flight operations or damage to the aircraft”. However, the weight and size of other species, such as hawks or pigeons, could pose a danger to aircraft, he said.

Between 2014 and 2017, the most common types of birds involved in strikes were sparrows (52 strikes), birds of prey (19), swallows (12), pigeons (nine), swift (seven) and starlings (six). There were other species involved in one to four strike incidents and 35 unidentified birds in other strikes.

The spike in 2017 could not be attributed to a single cause. “We are still analysing these numbers, as there may be various contributing factors, from environmental to operational ones,” the spokesman said.  

Airlines put a lot of pressure on airports to ensure they take the necessary measures

“While bird strikes may occur at any time of the year, some tend to be seasonal, particularly those involving the starling, which are exclusively experienced between October and March.”

An industry source said bird strikes give airlines serious headaches because they are very costly in terms of time, money and maintenance.

“A bird strike costs airlines money. It also causes frustration to passengers who arrive late and may miss appointments or connecting flights. That is why airlines put a lot of pressure on airports to ensure they take necessary measures to minimise the risk of strikes.”

A local aircraft’s nose dented and covered in blood from a bird strike. In 2016, Malta International Airport was ordered to pay Air Malta €250,000 in damages following a strike involving a flock of birds.A local aircraft’s nose dented and covered in blood from a bird strike. In 2016, Malta International Airport was ordered to pay Air Malta €250,000 in damages following a strike involving a flock of birds.

The airport has a number of measures in place in relation to bird hazard management. Its operations team conducts bird presence patrols and takes systematic harassment action through acoustic distress calls targeted at resident flocks. This is enhanced by “habitat control measures” – the removal of food and water sources on the aerodrome.

Regular grass cutting, which is one of the MIA’s safety management procedures, also helps to eliminate shelter options for birds and makes it more difficult for them to identify food sources. 

The company also has a reporting system in place which records bird presence occurrences for the purposes of monitoring and data collection.

Transport Malta, the authority that regulates the airport’s operations, calculates that the average number of annual strikes at the airport over a number of years is 37.

If a bird strike leads to a serious incident, it is investigated by the Bureau of Aircraft Accident Investigation (BAAI), a spokesman for the authority said. In cases where the event has been inconsequential, this is investigated only by the MIA aerodrome safety manager who would then take appropriate action. 

Transport Malta’s Civil Aviation Directorate also reviews each report of bird strike received and ensures that appropriate action has been taken by the aerodrome operator to address each occurrence. 

The Aerodrome Wildlife Hazard Management Plan is subject to periodical audits and inspections.

However, a source close to the MIA pointed out that many of the experienced staff had left or have been moved from the section in charge of bird control, with many newcomers taking their place.

The spokesman for the airport said regular training sessions were held on bird identification and control techniques.

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