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Why don't more airports use radar to prevent dangerous bird strikes?

by Jeff Rossen and Josh Davis / / Source: TODAY

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The "Miracle on the Hudson" — the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River on Jan. 15, 2009 — happened after the plane collided with a flock of Canada geese shortly after it took off from LaGuardia Airport in New York City. All 155 people aboard the plane survived. But need the emergency have happened at all?

Bird strikes with airplanes keep occurring. In July 2012, the nose of a United Airlines Boeing 737 was ripped open when a bird collided with the aircraft as it descended into Denver. Fortunately, the plane landed safely and no one was injured despite the dramatic gash in its nose.

Just a few months earlier, a Delta Airlines Boeing 757 had to return to JFK Airport in New York because an engine failed due to a bird strike shortly after takeoff. "I was literally calling my wife to say we could be — [I was] freaking," said Grant Cardone, a passenger on that plane. "[I was thinking] this might be my last flight, I was that scared."

And just last February, experienced pilot Robert Weber managed to safely land his 1986 Piper Saratoga near Fort Myers, Florida, after a bird struck his windshield in mid-flight, captured on video. Though his windshield was blown out, Weber suffered only a small cut on his forehead.

Experts say a single bird the size of a goose has the capability to stop a jet engine and bring a commercial airliner down. That's why avoiding bird strikes is a critical operation at airports around the country. So what if there were technology that could detect birds at and around airports, and help pilots avoid them?

It turns out that such technology does exist, and the Federal Aviation Administration has been testing it for a decade. Yet of all the commercial airports in the United States, only three are currently using the technology: Seattle-Tacoma, Dallas/Fort Worth, and Chicago's O'Hare.

At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, resident wildlife biologist Steve Osmek showed TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen how the technology works in a trailer right next to a runway. "We have two of these radars that are spinning like flashlights, illuminating the skies and picking up all the birds that are flying over the airport," Osmek explained.

When birds are deemed dangerous, the airport command center sends an alert and workers rush to the runway to scare them away. "Simply put, can this help prevent bird strikes?" Rossen asked.

"It can," Osmek said. And the Federal Aviation Administration agrees, even funding a report that says radar systems that can detect birds near airpots have "proven their ability" near airports. The report said that that some systems can be used to track birds from airports to "regional airspace," but that full "national airspace coverage is still many years away but may be possible with the right system integration developments."

But Rep. Joseph Crowley, a New York Democrat, thinks the FAA isn't doing enough. "It's outrageous," he said. "If the technology exists, even if it's at a developing stage, we should implement whatever we can, if it can save lives."

"Do you believe this technology can help save lives?" Rossen asked Crowley.

"Absolutely," Crowley said. "There's no question, and if a pilot gets the information that he or she needs, if the air traffic controller gets the information that he or she needs, they can help each other avert disaster."

The FAA declined a request for an on-camera interview, but told NBC News it is still examining the full range of uses for the technology, and that it "does not have the ... authority to require avian radar" and will continue to "support research."

But critics say the FAA has been researching it for a decade already. "I think it's punting the ball," Crowley said. "It's a no-brainer in my opinion."

The radar would cost each airport about $60,000 a year to operate. The FAA says if individual airports want it, they'll have to spend their own money on it; however, there is some federal assistance available to help with some of those costs. But the FAA says that so far, no U.S. airport has even asked. Critics say that's because the FAA has not made providing such assistance a priority. And even with assistance, the technology is expensive.

To suggest a topic for an upcoming Rossen Report, email us.

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