POTENTIALLY disastrous collisions between aircraft and birds are increasing around Scotland’s busiest airports.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has revealed the number of bird strike incidents has risen at Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Inverness airports over the past two years due to an increase in wild flocks and growth in air traffic.
Glasgow Airport said it had reported nearly three times the usual number of incidents involving larger birds such as geese so far this year.
Confirmed reports are also on the rise across the UK, with the total up from 1,278 in 2009 to 1,436 in 2010 and 1,529 last year.
The aviation industry regards bird strikes as the biggest manageable risk to safety and incidents cost airlines globally more than £650 million a year. They include an aircraft carrying 155 passengers being forced to ditch in the Hudson river in New York in 2009 after both its engines were knocked out by a flock of geese.
A year later, a Thomas Cook plane survived a “significant” bird strike while trying to land at Manchester Airport.
In 2002, a charter plane with two pilots on board ploughed on to a road and hit a car outside Aberdeen Airport after crashing off the runway following a bird strike on one engine.
The greatest risk to aircraft from birds is on take-off and landing, with even the most minor incident estimated to cost an average of £13,000 because of delays caused by inspections to check damage.
A bird strike is believed to have been partially to blame for a crash in which seven British tourists – including Darren Kelly from Dumfries and Galloway – died on take-off from a Nepalese airport last month.
According to a CAA document: “A significant international aviation safety issue has been identified arising from the combination of a dramatic increase in the worldwide population of large flocking birds and the long-term growth of air traffic.
“Growth in the geese population, and especially the increase in non-migratory geese near urban centres, is causing considerable air safety concern.”
Glasgow Airport said it had reported eight incidents so far this year involving larger birds, such as geese or swans, compared to the normal annual average of three. Officials fear more swans and geese may be migrating to winter in Scotland, while birds are also attracted to nearby industrial buildings to roost.
Numbers of barnacle and greylag geese in Scotland have soared in recent years with greylags establishing permanent breeding colonies in several areas. Canada geese flocks are also on the increase.
The government’s countryside agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, announced a cull of more than 5,000 native geese in Orkney last month because of farmers’ concerns that numbers were being allowed to grow too rapidly.
The CAA figures show reported incidents at Inverness Airport increased by nearly half, from 24 in 2010 and 31 last year to 35 so far this year.
At Aberdeen, although total reports fell from 37 to 27 in 2011, they have risen to 31 so far this year. Edinburgh’s total increased from 55 to 60 in 2011, and has reached 38 for 2012.
Prestwick Airport in Ayrshire is the only major Scottish airport to see a decline in reported incidents, from 24 to 15 last year and eight so far in 2012.
A spokesman for Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (Hial), which runs Inverness Airport, said: “Passenger safety is our number-one priority.
“Bird strike is a serious issue and Hial actively operates a robust wildlife management programme which is tailored to the requirements of each airport depending on location and environmental habitat.”
A spokesman for Glasgow Airport said: “The threat of bird strikes is extremely remote but, like all airports, we go to great lengths to minimise and manage any risk.
“In addition to having a dedicated operational team patrolling the airfield 24/7, we work closely with our neighbours and local landlords within an eight-mile radius of the airport to offer advice on how to prevent birds from roosting.”
Aberdeen Airport said its bird control activities were complemented by monitoring activity over more than eight miles around its perimeter.
A spokeswoman said: “This includes work on site, encouraging our neighbours to reduce bird activity in their facilities close to the airport, and understanding what activities our neighbours are doing that could possibly encourage bird activity.
An Edinburgh Airport spokesman said the reduction in confirmed incidents so far this year “is encouraging and a testimony to the concerted efforts of all involved in bird hazard control at the airport”.
He added: “However, we are not complacent and will continue to work hard in this area to ensure we maintain this level of performance.”
Environmental charity RSPB Scotland said migrating birds were more likely to come from Europe than North America.
Its spokesman said: “There is a large autumn/winter influx of geese and other wildfowl into Scotland from parts of northern Europe ranging from Greenland to Russia.
“The populations of some species that do this have increased in recent years and some have declined. It is possible, but not certain, that a tendency towards milder winters will generally encourage more wildfowl to winter further north so that fewer of them come to the British Isles.”