DENVER—Newly released figures show Denver International Airport led the nation in bird and wildlife strikes to aircraft last year.
But airport officials and the Federal Aviation Administration, which compiled the data, say the numbers have little bearing on airport safety.
Kendra Cross, a federal biologist who manages wildlife at DIA, says the Denver airport is more susceptible to bird and wildlife strikes because it covers more land than any other airport in the nation - 49,000 acres - and is the fifth busiest airport in the U.S.
She also says most of DIA's strikes result in little to no damage to aircraft.
Airplane collisions with birds or other animals have destroyed 28 aircraft since 2000, with New York's Kennedy airport and Sacramento International reporting the most incidents with serious damage, according to Federal Aviation Administration data posted for the first time Friday. And the problem appears to be growing.
The FAA list of wildlife strikes, published on the Internet, details more than 89,000 incidents since 1990, costing 11 people their lives. Most incidents were bird strikes, but deer and other animals have been hit on runways, too.
The situation seems to be getting worse: Airplane collisions with birds have more than doubled at 13 major U.S. airports since 2000, including New Orleans, Houston's Hobby, Kansas City, Orlando and Salt Lake City. Wildlife experts say increasingly birds, particularly large ones like Canada geese, are finding food and living near cities and airports year round rather than migrating.
The figures are known to be far from complete. Even the FAA estimates its voluntary reporting system captures only 20 percent of wildlife strikes. The agency, however, has refused for a decade to adopt a National Transportation Safety Board recommendation to make the reports mandatory.
Friday's first disclosure of the entire FAA database, including the locations of strikes, occurred largely because of pressure following the ditching of a US Airways jet in the Hudson River after bird strikes knocked out both of its engines on Jan. 15. Within days, The Associated Press asked for the database under the Freedom of Information Act.
All 155 people aboard survived that incident as pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger ditched the powerless jet safely. That plane had at least seven earlier collisions with birds since February 2000, including one in March 2002 at Orlando International Airport when it sucked a red-tailed hawk into an engine during a night takeoff. The plane returned to the airport immediately with a damaged engine.
The data revealed one positive trend: strikes that caused major damage dropped noticeably in 2007 and 2008. In 2000, pilots reported 178 such strikes; in 2007 there were 125, and in the first 11 months of 2008 only 85. December 2008 numbers are not yet listed.
There was no immediate explanation from the FAA for the decline in major damage, but the agency tightened engine design standards in 2004 to better withstand bird strikes, and more and more airports engage in wildlife management.
Topping the list of airports where planes were either substantially damaged or destroyed by birds since 2000 were John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York with at least 30 such accidents and Sacramento International Airport in California with at least 28.
Kennedy, the nation's sixth-busiest airport, is located amid wetlands that attract birds. Ron Marsico, spokesman for the port authority that owns JFK, said it has been protected for years by aggressive wildlife management that includes habitat disruption, fireworks and the "killing of thousands of birds each year." He said the agency recently added a wildlife expert to increase vigilance.
Sacramento International, the nation's 40th busiest, lies beneath the Pacific Flyway used by millions of geese, swans, ducks, cranes, raptors and other birds that migrate with the seasons and stop to feed on crops in the farms that abut the airport. Airport spokeswoman Karen Doron said that in 2007 alone the five airports managed by Sacramento County "used loud noises, distress calls and other techniques to disperse more than 53,000 birds from our runway areas."
At Sacramento International on Friday, Dawn Holliman, a 51-year-old real estate agent from Placerville who was flying to Phoenix, said she felt the odds of being in an airplane struck by birds were relatively low. She was more concerned that the government previously withheld the information.
"It's irritating they don't let the public know about the risks," said Holliman.
The FAA had long argued the public couldn't handle the full truth about bird strikes, so it withheld the names of specific airports and airlines involved while releasing only aggregate data. The agency said the public might use the data to "cast unfounded aspersions" on those who reported strikes, and airports and airlines in turn might make fewer reports.