Openness vs. Secrecy: FAA’s goose may be cooked over ploy to hide bird-strike data

The Canada Goose may have brought down Flight 1549. At may place, they just poop on the beach.

The Canada Goose may have brought down Flight 1549. At my place, they just poop in the yard.

How many birds struck commercial airliners last year? You may never know if the Federal Aviation Administration has its way.

The agency that oversees U.S. flying machines fears that data about bird strikes may create undue public concern about the safety of commercial aviation. Last Thursday, according to this AP report, the FAA made a stealth move to keep bird-strike data secret, quietly publishing its proposal in the Federal Registry in the late afternoon.

Turns out the AP has its own agenda on the bird issue. The wire service requested the FAA bird data (via FOI) shortly after the “miracle” landing of Flight 1549 brought the issue to prominence. The agency’s “secret” database is said to include more than 100,000 reports of bird strikes going back nearly 20 years. All were voluntarily submitted by the airlines.

If the AP uncovers a bigger story, we all need to hear it.

Openness over secrecy. When it comes to matters of public health and safety, organizations must put openness ahead of secrecy. That’s a fundamental tenet of public relations, and one we preach in our classrooms at Kent State.

I was a cheerleader for transparency long before the Web 2.0 crowd adopted it as a core principle. My love of transparency isn’t driven by some altruistic notion of “right,” but by a loyalty to our clients and to the publics those clients serve. Secrecy on matters of public interest — especially health and safety issues — doesn’t serve the public or the organization. It only taints reputations and foments mistrust. Secrecy in matters of public interest is bad PR that drives away customers and investors, neither of whom like surprises.

I’m all for hiding information when it gives my client a fair competitive edge. There’s a reason KFC doesn’t tell us the “secret recipe.” But fried chicken, consumed in moderation, poses no threat. Canada Geese splattered on the windshields of airliners do.

In my practitioner days, I worked with several clients whose business created public concern and anxiety. One was a large trash hauler, another a processor of sewer sludge. (I had a glamorous career, indeed!) Neither client was one that communities would normally trust and embrace, yet both dealt with problems we all have a hand in creating — if you know what I mean.

For both clients, transparency was the ONLY logical strategy — just as it is now for the FAA.

When elected officials or community activists expressed concern about our clients’ proposals — for example, construction of a solid waste transfer station — we hosted field trips to identical facilities in other cities. We invited any and all questions, and we met  all concerns head on, even those that were entirely illogical, and many were.

Why is the FAA so concerned about the bird-strike data? Birds fly. Planes fly. And sometimes their paths cross. But until Flight 1549, bird strikes weren’t exactly a top-of-mind issue with most Americans. Now they are — and the FAA’s insistence on hiding data makes us all the more curious. I’m hoping the PR professionals at the FAA are pounding their fists on management’s table and opening the blinds to let the sunshine in.turret2

Confession: I hate flying almost as much as I hate geese. But at least airliners don’t poop in my yard. But if the airlines would install gun turrets under the cockpit, I’d be willing to fly shotgun! I’d even bring my own ammo.


6 Responses to Openness vs. Secrecy: FAA’s goose may be cooked over ploy to hide bird-strike data

  1. Ike Pigott says:

    I’m not coming down on the side of opacity, but you have to wonder if the FAA ISN’T performing a public service by making the data hard to find.

    Not saying they SHOULD cover things up, but that data can easily be blown out of proportion and context, overinflating the inherent dangers.

    What if some kid choked on a toothpaste cap, and we found out that 100,000 kids in 20 years had “cap ingestion incidents.” There would be outcry, rage, and eager politicians rushing in to “do something” by dragging the FTC and other agencies in and scolding them for not making caps bigger than our fist and too big to put in a mouth.

    Yet, in 99,999 cases, the child either spit it out, or even in a few cases “process” it. Would the results of the witch-hunt and over-reaction be in the public interest?

    Just sayin’… we spend an awful lot of time and resources in our culture being afraid of things that are relatively low risk. Maybe the FAA is merely waiting for a time to put the data in context so as not to enable mobs of well-meaning but reactionary agents.

  2. Bill Sledzik says:

    And I suspect that’s precisely the rationale of the FAA, Ike. I mean, prior to Flight 1549, had you heard about birds bringing down a commercial airliner? I hadn’t. So in reality, our planes are pretty dang safe, even when “attacked” by the big Canada bombers. I believe that should be the message from the FAA. Then, if we need to build a few goose blinds near airports, so be it.

    You are right, the data may be blown out of proportion once released, but I don’t see it creating a public panic or a health hazard. Also, this is information is covered by FOI, so in the end, the FAA will lose this one — and along with it part of its reputation.

    But I do see your point. And I can think of a number of occasions when withholding the information makes sense. Just not this time.

  3. Blair Boone says:

    Bill and Ike, you’re both right. Bird strikes are apparently common. Bouncing a seagull off the wing isn’t a big deal in most cases. Sucking a honker into each engine on takeoff is apparently a billion-to-one shot. Captain Sully said he couldn’t believe it when he lost power, so clearly that kind of bird strike is rare beyond calculation. What you’re talking about, at least in terms of PR, is the difference between raw data and correctly interpreted data. That said, I think the FAA needs to carefully release the data along with supporting interpretation so Ike’s well-meaning mobs don’t have ammo to get us up in arms over nothing. And Bill, a few goose blinds in Flushing Bay might be a good thing. That would get us up in arms for a good cause.

  4. Hank Inman says:

    It’s simple, really. Aren’t there a lot of starving people in the world? Hmmmmm. Why not serve them roasted goose or sauteed venison — we’ve plenty of both!

  5. Bill,

    I especially like your examples when transparency was needed.

    I still wonder about the public needs to know about bird strikes (there is much more people need to be concerned about when flying, like the number of near misses between planes). Do we really want to know or does the media really want to know because it’s top of mind story? I’m not always sure which it might be nor am I sure reactiveness, as Ike points out, is really worthwhile.

    People hit animals when they drive cars too. Does that mean we need legislation to introduce cow catchers? Probably not. But that is also why I like your follow up comment. The FAA might not to release bird strike counts, but it might be worthwhile to demonstrate how Flight 1549 is an obvious exception.


  6. Mike Licht says:

    Canada Geese have downed the most sophisticated aircraft.


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