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Pilots Say Trash, Birds will Endanger Aircraft at LaGuardia Airport

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A proposed garbage transfer facility that would be built less than half a mile from the end of one of America’s busiest runways is drawing strong criticism. The site is to be constructed just just 2,206 feet – much, much lower than the FAA’s normal minimum distance of 10,000 feet – from LaGuardia Airport’s Runway 13/31.

Coincidentally, the waterside facility that would sit 2,200 feet away from Runway 13/31 would handle 2,200 tons of trash a day, as it transfers New York City’s garbage from trucks to barges. Although the trash will be stored in sealed containers and the overall area is designed to be enclosed, detractors say birds will be able to see and smell the garbage passing through, and are much more likely to be drawn into the path of aircraft taking off and landing.

While the facility’s location is permissible under FAA regulations at LaGuardia, the proximity would not be permitted under normal FAA guidelines at most large commercial airports.

The reason the proximity is to be allowed here is because of the specific way jets make their approach to Runway 31, which just barely keeps the “protected zone” from overlapping the trash facility. At most other airports, a trash facility within 2,500 feet of a runway would be prohibited.

Bird strikes present a very real, very serious threat to aircraft – ask any pilot. Two years ago, perhaps the most famous bird strike accident took place at (where else?) LaGuardia.

Cpt. Chelsey B. Sullenberger III and his crew became heroes when US Airways Flight 1549 endured multiple bird strikes after encountering a flock of geese during its initial climb out from LaGuardia at around 3,000 feet. The impact immediately turned the entire windscreen dark brown and caused the Airbus A320 to lose thrust in both engines.

Passengers reported hearing loud “booms” and seeing flames streaming from the engines, as the pilots calmly communicated with ATC about possible landing areas in nearby New Jersey. As the seconds ticked by, it became apparent that they would have to ditch in the Hudson River – on one of the coldest days of the year. Miraculously, after passing over the George Washington Bridge at an altitude of only 900 feet, Captain Sullenberger successfully landed the plane on the surface of the Hudson, right next to the skyscrapers of Downtown Manhattan. All of the 150 passengers and 5 crew survived.

That 2009 incident became widely known as the “Miracle on the Hudson.”

James E. Hall, in an Opinion Article that appeared in the New York Times, wrote that the FAA has “ignored the lesson from that episode.” He added that if the FAA and the Port Authority (or, failing that, the governors of New York and New Jersey) don’t step in to move the trash processing site away from the busy runway, residents will be “left praying for another miracle on the Hudson.”

Russell DeFusco, who formerly headed the Air Force’s program to protect aircraft from birds, told USA Today that birds don’t pay attention to whether there is an extended protection zone or not. He, too, believes the garbage facility is too close and should be relocated.

The FAA did initially question the safety of the trash site’s location, but according to sources were more focused on the dangerous height of the structure rather than its potential as a bird magnet. After the facility’s height was lowered to within safe limits, they concluded that it was safe for the city to go ahead with construction.

Later, the agency hired experts to conduct an assessment of the bird strike threat, and concluded that the facility could operate safely if the city took additional steps to keep birds away from it. Some are taking this as an implicit admission of the clear danger the facility could present to one of the country’s biggest, busiest commercial runways.

New York City’s Sanitation Department pointed out that a similar enclosed facility in nearby Staten Island doesn’t attract birds, and that advanced filters eliminate bird-attracting odors. They confirmed that they would comply with any and all FAA regulations.

According to the New York Times, the number of bird strikes at LaGuardia have been increasing for the past few years.

LaGuardia Airport is part of the New York City airport system, the largest system in the entire world in terms of flight operations, and second busiest in the world in terms of passenger traffic (after London).

As others have pointed out, the miraculous (but nevertheless close call) ditch of Flight 1549 doesn’t help to distract anyone from the danger birds pose to aircraft – despite the fact that the birds in that incident were migratory birds. However, the seagulls that are generally attracted to waterside trash are more than large enough to potentially disable an aircraft engine. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Cpt. Sullenberger and his co-pilot from Flight 1549, Jeffery Skiles, both reportedly oppose the project.

LaGuardia Airport already has a dubious reputation – ranking the lowest out of 66 U.S. airports in a passenger satisfaction study and also ranking last in on-time arrivals (together with Newark Liberty International Airport, which is part of the same system and is located less than 15 miles away from LaGuardia). Nearly 20 years ago, Jerry Seinfeld famously mocked the notoriously short runways at LaGuardia that abruptly end in the bay, joking that the only way to improve the take-off area would be to fill the water with piranhas. If nothing else, the bad press surrounding the proposed new bird-attracting garbage facility could further hurt the public’s opinion of the airport.

Should the proposed enclosed trash facility be moved, or can we trust the parties involved to keep the airspace around LaGuardia safe from birds? For those who travel to the Big Apple, will it affect which airport you use? Probably not – but we’d still like to hear any comments you may have on this pressing aviation safety issue. Please let us know your thoughts and opinions below, especially if you are a pilot or member of a flight crew.

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