Monday, November 10, 2008


When pondering the major precautions of an airport, wildlife would probably not make most people's lists. Consider this however: one in every four planes that takes off collides with some type of wildlife, most commonly birds. While often there are no serious problems resulting from these strikes, they still have the potential to cause hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage to the plane and a delayed flight. In addition, there are enough documented fatalities resulting from these strikes to make any flyer at least a little nervous, especially around airports such as New York’s JFK, which has one of the most well documented bird problems of any airport in the world. These wildlife concerns have created a unique problem for the designer in which he must consider the best way to lower the risk of an animal strike while not harming the animals themselves, nor their environment. Also, because there are many different wildlife environments around airports worldwide, each airport has its own unique list of issues it must consider in order to come up with a solution that is beneficial to both humans and wildlife.
According to a 2008 USA Today report, between 1990 and 2007, the FAA documented more than 82,000 wildlife strikes, 97% of which we’re birds. The strikes totaled $291.1 million in damages and 362,073 hours in aircraft downtime. Documented damage ranges from minimal body damage to extreme engine and airframe damage. For example, one Learjet overhaul shop in the Midwest reported a jet colliding with nine snow geese while being ferried in for maintenance. The repair cost for the jet was $300,000 to fix the airframe and $200,000 to fix the engine. At Palm Beach International, a bird collided with a cabin class corporate jet above the windshield, puncturing the skin and wrecking six stringers as well as a frame. The time to complete repairs to the aircraft was in excess of six weeks. Given these numbers, it is easy to see how anxious airports are to find a permanent and effective solution to this problem.

The key to finding the solution lies in understanding the location and environment of each airport. Wildlife strikes at different airports are so diverse that no airports share all the same problem species. For example, because JFK is located in the bay, there is a year round problem with seabirds like gulls and geese that would probably not be too common around an airport located in the midwest. Also, while some airports experience a consistent number of strikes each month, other airports located on major migratory flyways see spikes in their numbers during the spring and fall migratory periods. The birds are attracted to environments around airports because, in general, there is a large amount of open, grassy space that was most likely previously undeveloped before airport construction. Typically, this area is lush with insects that birds feed on. In addition, there are not really any predators for birds around airports aside from humans. Specific airports then have their own specific problem features. Auckland Airport in New Zealand had problems with birds being attracted by oxidation pools located near by connected to a water treatment plant on the coast. Similarly, Seattle-Tacoma has pools located near the runways containing fish attractive to bald eagles.            

In brainstorming design solutions for these issues, the first thing to consider is the environmental impact. Animals were living in these spaces long before humans developed them. Often times, airports are built in undeveloped spaces that served as a refuge to all the animals previously forced outward by city development. Therefore, a good solution should be one that not only guarantees aircraft safety, but also does not harm the wildlife or environment. Auckland Airport recognized the problem with the oxidation pools, and in response, opened them up to let the sea in so that the birds would be drawn back out. This has not only relieved the number of bird strikes, but has also created new inner coastal environments for aqua life. Christchurch airport, also located in New Zealand, has been experimenting with endophyte fungi in the grassy areas where birds graze. The fungi are hosted by the grass, and in return, release a toxin if the grass becomes stressed by predators. This toxin has shown in experiments to only make the birds sick rather than kill them. Also, tests have shown that the experience is apparently memorable enough to the birds that they generally do not graze in the same areas again.

Despite the success of the solutions, some critics argue that they required substantial amounts of money and time commitment. Auckland's coastal revamp took nearly six years, and Christchurch's endophytes cost $30,000 to inoculate only fifty seeds. Still, there have been more simple solutions that have had success. The International Journal of Pest Management released an article last year discussing the results of anti-perching devices tested around airports with a high density of wire area for birds to perch. The study surveyed which species of birds preferred which width of wires and placed anti-perching wire at the the appropriate heights to deter specific species. The tests showed promising results in deterring blackbirds and starlings from perching around airports, which are two of the most common problem species. Even simpler solutions include replacing grassy area with FAA approved airfield turf, or training dogs (as used at JFK in addition to the famed falcons) to stalk and chase the birds away.

So, where does the designer fit in all of this? Is this not an issue that a wildlife specialist, engineer, biologist, or even a landscape architect would be more suited to deal with? Most people would probably not read an article about a biologist using fungi in grass to deter birds and consider him a "designer". So then what is a designer? Common notions would probably ascribe someone involved in fashion, graphics, furniture, architecture, or some other artistically creative practice to the title of "designer", and this is not at all wrong. To call anyone in the previously mentioned fields a "designer" would more than likely be totally accurate. However, it is important to understand that the fundamental idea of design is simply to formulate the best solution to any problem, regardless of the nature of that problem. Good designers are constantly building their knowledge and understanding of diverse subject matter from cars to posters to your mother's desk lamp. They are experts at becoming experts in any field they need to be so that they can help to solve any problem. They blur the lines between boundaries in the same way Theo Jansen's kinetic sculptures blur the line between artist and engineer.

In closing, it should be safe to say that not only do airport wildlife issues fall under the category of a design problem, but also that they are issues of which everyone should be made more aware. The solutions listed above were executed by biologists, landscapers, animal trainers, etc., not one of which would probably refer to themselves as a designer. The fact that people involved in so many different areas have all come forth to tackle the same problem demonstrates that regardless the issue, anyone can take up the fundamentals of design and use them to solve that issue.

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