The Federal Aviation Administration doesn't keep good track of how many times planes strike birds, and its inspectors often aren't familiar with wildlife, according to an inspector general's report Thursday.
Jeffrey Guzzetti, assistant inspector general for aviation at the Transportation Department, said the FAA can't be sure that airports have good plans for coping with wildlife or that FAA inspectors who review the plans have expertise in wildlife.
Reported bird strikes have quintupled in the past two decades. "Increases in the populations of hazardous wildlife species continue to challenge airports' ability to provide a safe operating environment," Guzzetti said in his 30-page report.
The FAA said in a statement Thursday that the agency has taken a comprehensive approach to reduce wildlife strikes since 1960, using better research, technology, training and online reporting.
"The FAA has already adopted and completed a majority of the (inspector general's) recommendations and will continue to make improvements to the wildlife hazard mitigation program," the agency said.
The danger of bird strikes was dramatically illustrated in January 2009, when a US Airways flight taking off from New York's La Guardia Airport struck Canada geese and Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger landed the plane in the Hudson River. All 155 passengers and crewmembers survived.
No flights are immune. Vice President Biden's plane hit birds April 19 while landing at California's Santa Barbara Airport but was able to land. There were no injuries.
The number of reported bird strikes rose from 2,166 in 1990 to 10,483 last year, according to the FAA. The agency estimates that bird strikes cause $123 million in damage per year to engines, windshields and navigational equipment.
However, the inspector general found that 108 strikes in internal logs at eight airports — more than one in five — weren't reported to the FAA in 2010.
"Airport officials stated that they did not report all known strikes … because it was not a requirement," the report said.
The FAA gave $458 million to airports from 1997 to 2011 to reduce wildlife hazards. The agency estimates it will spend an additional $366 million on the projects over the next 20 years.
The FAA created a program to educate pilots about the danger of bird strikes. It also developed a bird radar that has been deployed at Seattle, Chicago (O'Hare), New York (JFK) and Dallas/Fort Worth airports.
Other steps airports can take are reducing nesting places, draining ponds and eliminating food sources. Chemical sprays and noise can repel birds, and the red light from handheld lasers has been found to disperse Canada geese.
Part of the challenge in coping with bird strikes is that 90% involve federally protected species.
The non-migratory population of Canada geese, which are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, has quadrupled in the past two decades, according to the FAA.