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29 April 2009 Swine Flu Update for 29 April 2009

The first US swine flu fatality was confirmed by the CDC 29 April 2009. The victim was a 23-month old child who was being treated in a Houston area hospital. The CDC also reported that there were 90 other cases of swine flu in the US. Yesterday, the World Health Organization reported that seven countries have officially reported cases of swine influenza (H1N1) infection, including 26 cases and seven deaths in Mexico. The number of confirmed cases and deaths from the CDC and WHO may be very different from the numbers reported by other health authorities or the media. There have been no reports of swine flu infections involving airline passengers.

Swine Flu Risks for Airline Passengers

Audio: MP3 | VideoiPod/MP4 | WMV | YouTube
For more videos, visit the YouTube channel. Passenger Resources
Centers for Disease Control Swine Flu Information
World Health Organization Swine Flu Information

Discussion of Fatal Bird Flu Outbreak on Airliners in 2003 (5:44)

27 April 2009

Swine Flu Risk for Airline Passengers - Yes, a Virus in the Sky Can Kill You

With the recent reports that swine flu (H1N1) epidemic in Mexico may be spreading around the world, one of the fears is that air travel may make it easy for the flu to spread. Given the global nature of air travel, and nature of swine flu, by the time authorities were aware that there was a risk, it was already too late. In addition to the US and Mexico, reports of swine flu infections have already been made by authorities in a number of countries in Europe, Asia, and South America. In at least one case, authorities suspect that a cluster of flu cases in New York may be due to a group of students who had recently visited Mexico.

When events like this happen, one question that gets asked is whether anyone has ever died after being exposed to some kind of virus on an airline flight. That answer appears to be yes, and it involved the SARS virus in 2003. The next question in your mind may be whether it happen with swine flu virus in 2009. Only time will tell if it will happen again.

The New England Journal of Medicine reported that in March 2003, six passengers from two different flights in Asia died after being exposed to the SARS virus on those flights. Two of the flight attendants and 17 of the other passengers on those two flight were also infected, but survived.

Another question that may get asked is what kind of person is at the greatest risk of getting infected. A report in the online edition of The Times of London, quotes Michael O’Leary, the head of the Irish airline Ryanair, as saying that the virus was only a risk to Asians and Mexicans “living in slums.” The official position of is that unlike human beings, a virus does not discriminate on the basis of national origin or economic condition and would certainly never be quoted saying anything so blatantly asinine. suggests that passengers who are concerned about swine flu should follow the news media for the latest bulletins and to refer to the following resources for information:
Travel Warnings and Other Passenger Information
US Centers for Disease Control
World Health Organization

Additional Resources

Background Information on SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome)

Podcast from 29 April 2009: Swine Flu Risks for Airline Passengers (2:35)

Background Information on Bird Flu (Avian Influenza)

Podcast from March 2006: Bird Flu Risks for Air Travelers (5:44)

Using Media Attention to Promote the Need for More Thoughtful Data Analysis

Since the very beginning of, intense media focus on aviation safety events, typically plane crashes, have presented opportunities to bring the work of to the attention of the media and the general public. The increasing variety of advanced search and social media applications have made it easier than ever to quickly identify opportunities to promote a greater understanding of aviation safety.

The recent FAA policy proposals concerning public access to their bird and wildlife strike database, and the reversal of those proposals, resulted in something unusual when it comes to the the media and aviation safety--intense media attention that didn't involve a plane crash. used one of the many free search tools from Google to find newspapers and other news media that were writing about that database, allowing to take specific steps to engage the public and the media in a further dialogue about issues related to analyzing that database.

When the FAA proposed to severely restrict the public's access to the FAA's bird and wildlife strike database in March 2009, it ignited controversy as well as hundreds of news stories related to the proposed policy change. When the DOT and the FAA reversed course the following month, it led to hundreds of other articles, many of them focusing on the strike record of specific airports and airlines.

This spike in interest represented an opportunity to increase's audience by using the media coverage to direct people to bird and wildlife strike information on's web sites and blogs.

The key was that many of these articles allowed readers to leave comments. left comments on many of these articles, making sure that the comments invited the reader to visit related online resources that provided additional information about bird and wildlife strike related issues.

Finding the articles was particularly easy, with the most important tool being Google Alerts, a free service that allows you tell Google to search for recently published content that contain specific keywords of interest.

The full plan to take advantage of the sudden public attention had three parts:

1. Use Google Alerts to find out what news stories were coming out online (in this case, the search terms [+faa +"bird strike"] were used).

2. Find the articles with the largest potential audience and either post comments to the article (always mentioning at least one of's bird strike related resources).

3. If an article from a medium to large media organization had contact information for the writer of the story, I'd make a point to contact that person by phone or email and offer to provide information or answer questions.

By using Google Alerts research to find news articles, I was able to easily find dozens of opportunities to post comments to articles and use those posts to direct readers to some of my resources. In addition, I also found relevant media contacts that I could help or that could help me later.

Each of's comments were a variation of the following message:

Releasing the data was the right thing to do on the part of the FAA. The right thing to do on the part of the public is to use the data as a way to understand a problem and not as the final answer.

Keep in mind that the FAA bird strike database is voluntary, so you can't just look at the raw numbers. Aggressive reporting is only one reason why there may be many reports in the database from a particular airport or airline.

Aviation organizations like the Foundation offer many insights into how one should approach aviation safety data. Many of their bird strike examples are at and

It's not too late to do this kind of thing for your organization. Whether it is for bird strikes or for something else related to aviation, if you have a blog or web site that needs a boost of attention and traffic, and there is a major media frenzy that is relevant to your site or blog, try this three step marketing method yourself. Even if you don't place comments, it is an excellent way to identify reporters whom you may want to approach later.

24 April 2009

FAA Backs Down - Will Release Bird Strike Database to Public

Just two days after the deadline for submissions of public comments about their proposal to severely restrict public access to a major bird strike database, the Department of Transportation has overruled the FAA and has announced that the FAA will go in the opposite direction, releasing virtually every bit of data to the public.

The FAA is scheduled to make the database available online on Friday April 24th at I contacted the FAA on the 23rd, and I was told that there will by 94 data fields available, including just about everything except the phone number of the submitter.

This level of public disclosure is above and beyond the minimum that I suggested in my comments to the FAA, and well beyond what I expected to happen. I certainly look forward to reviewing the database when it becomes available.

For the audience, I will continue to offer support to anyone who has questions about how to analyze the data. If you do have questions or comments, feel free to contact me at

20 April 2009

Last Chance to Comment on FAA Database Access Changes

Last month the FAA proposed a rule change that would severely
restrict access to one of the most valuable databases of
bird and wildlife strikes available anywhere. If the FAA
gets its way, it will be almost impossible for the public
to review basic data about bird and wildlife strikes across
the United States.

The FAA invites the public send comments about the proposed rule
changes, and encourages you to make your
views known to the FAA. If you want to send your comments,
must do so by today. For guidance on how to submit comments,
please follow one of the links below:

How to Send Comments to the FAA
Background on this FAA Proposal Bird Strike Information
Response of Dr. Todd Curtis of

12 April 2009 Response to the FAA Bird Stike Database Proposal

The FAA proposal to restrict access to their most extensive database of bird and wildlife strikes has been discussed extensively at and by major news media. Judging by the response of the public and of a variety of aviation experts, including Dr. Todd Curtis of, it's fair to say that there is very little support for the rule changes. However, being opposed to the rule change doesn't affect some key issues around the FAA's Wildlife Hazard Database. One of those key questions is what kind of data should be made available to the public.

The public is invited to respond to the FAA proposal, and earlier entries in the News provided information on how to respond. and the News encourage its readers to provide input about this issue. Dr. Todd Curtis of has drafted an extensive response to the FAA proposal that refutes several of the arguments made by the FAA and that also provides specific suggestions both for what kinds of additional information should be included in the database, and what kinds of identifying information could be removed from database entries without sacrificing the usefulness of the data to the general public.

Please download and review a copy of this draft response. Feel free to share your comments about this response, either on this blog or by using the feedback form at

Additional Resources
How to Respond to an FAA Recommended Rule Change
Draft Response by Dr. Todd Curtis
FAA Proposal to Restrict Public Access to Safety Data

06 April 2009

Send Your Comments to the FAA

The previous post discussed the FAA's proposal to restrict public access to the Wildlife Hazard Database. This post will show you how you can submit comments about this proposal online, and provides an example of what kinds of comments would be the most effective.

The FAA invites interested persons to participate in this rule making by submitting written comments, including data, that deal with the possible impacts that may result from adopting a proposal. The most helpful comments are those that deal with a specific part of the proposal.

The FAA accepts comments online, by, fax, by mail, or you can deliver it in person. will focus on the online option. If you want to use another method, the information is provided in the FAA proposal.

The online portal for submitting comments is at If you put in the docket number (FAA-2009-0245) in the Search Documents box, you will be taken to a page with a number of options. To add a comment, click on the words "Send a Comment or Submission" or on the comment icon (it looks like a little yellow balloon).

Before you add comments, you may want to spend some time thinking about what you want to write. It is best to comment on one or more specific points in the proposal. I suggest that you take the time to read it over and come to your own conclusions. Below, I'll list the points that will be highlighted by

FAA Arguments and Objections

FAA Argument: Information about bird and wildlife strikes will not be submitted to the database because the disclosure of raw data could unfairly cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter. Objection: There are three parts to this objection:

1. Individuals who submit information to the database are not identified.

2. Assuming that it is somehow possible to identify the organization associated with one or more submissions, for example a specific airline or airport, then if someone makes unfair or unsupported claims, then that implies that there was a very poor analysis based on the data. A competent analysis would likely put the raw data in the proper context and neutralize any unfair claims.

3. According to the US government publication Wildlife Strikes to Civil Aircraft in the United States 1990-2007, only one in five bird and wildlife strikes are reported to the FAA's database. The FAA proposal contains no projection or estimate about what affect the proposed rule change would have on those who currently submit data, those who don't submit because of the current disclosure rules, and those who are not submitting for other reasons. Would the proportion of reported strikes go up to 25% if the disclosure rules changed? 50%? 75%? Perhaps it would drop to 15%.

FAA Argument: Releasing information from the database without benefit of proper analysis would produce an inaccurate perception of the individual airports and airlines and also inaccurate and inappropriate comparisons between different airports or different airlines. Objection: The fact that individuals or organizations may not understand how to do a proper analysis is not relevant because it is not the FAA's job to judge the competence, motives, or experience of those who may request data from a public database.

FAA Argument: Inaccurate portrayals of airports and airlines could have a negative impact on their participation in reporting bird strikes. Objection: As stated before, the FAA has no control over the actions of anyone who requests data. Inaccurate portrayals are always a possibility. However, the FAA has the expertise that should be able to easily counter any inaccurate analysis that unfairly portrays an airline or airport with a better analysis. There are a number of other industry organizations, including any affected airline and airport, that would be very willing to help the FAA to counter these kinds of unfair portrayals.

FAA Argument: The database should be exempt from public disclosure because when the FAA began collecting this data, it assured the entities submitting the data that the submissions would not be made available to the public. Objection: A review of the current online form and downloadable paper form for inputs to the Wildlife Hazard Database have nothing that promises that the data would not be available to the public.'s review of historical paper input forms going back to 1997 also show no such written promises. While the FAA may have made promises when the database was first created, the fact that for at least the last 12 years the FAA has apparently not made any promises of data privacy implies that they were not serious about their assurances made nearly 20 years ago.

What Should You Do Now?

If you want to make a comment to the FAA, do it before the deadline of April 20, 2009. Take the time to read the proposal and write down your comments. Follow the links given earlier and submit your comments to the FAA. If you need help or advice, feel free to contact

04 April 2009

Why the FAA Should Not Block Access to Bird Strike Data

In March 2009, the FAA quietly made a stunning proposal to make it nearly impossible for the public to access a vital aviation safety resource. Since 1990, the FAA's National Wildlife Strike Database has been one of the most important tools for understanding bird and wildlife strike risks to aircraft. With over 100,0000 records, this database has the potential to benefit everyone who flies by giving the aviation safety community and the general public the opportunity to analyze that data in order to discover ways to reduce the threats to aircraft caused by birds and other wildlife. The FAA states several concerns about the database, but none of their arguments support their proposal to block public access to the data.

The FAA admits that over the last 19 years they have collected and used this data to improve safety. One of their concerns with the current database is that there is a serious potential that information related to bird strikes will not be submitted because of fear that the disclosure of raw data could unfairly cast unfounded aspersions on the submitter.

This argument only makes sense if the FAA assumes that there is no way to counter an argument based on a biased or incompetent analysis. This is not the case at all. The tools needed to analyze aviation safety data are widely available. If an analysis is unfair or incorrect it should be easy to review the assumptions, the data, the analysis, and determine whether the conclusions were justified.

Another part of the FAA's argument to make this database unavailable to the public is that when the FAA began collecting this data, it assured the entities submitting the data that the submissions would not be made available to the public. While that may have been true 19 years ago, it apparently hasn't been the case for at least the past 12 years The current online submission form and the paper wildlife strike report forms available since at least 1997 made no such promises of secrecy.

In the proposal, the FAA states releasing this information without benefit of proper analysis would not only produce an inaccurate perception of the individual airports and airlines but also inaccurate and inappropriate comparisons between airports and airlines.

The concern of the FAA is clearly not for individual submitters, since they already redact this kind of personal information from the database. Their concerns appear to be for the reputation of airports and airlines. More importantly, this argument implies that the FAA has the attitude that the public doesn't have the ability to properly analyze the data. It's true that the process of asking and answering aviation safety questions can be an extremely difficult task even for aviation safety experts. It's probably true that if most members of the media or the general public attempt to analyze this bird strike data they may come to conclusions that may unfairly highlight an airline or airport. However, this possibility should not be the FAA's concern. The FAA has many roles, but passing judgment on the ability of the public to scrutinize data is not one of them.

The FAA in their proposal states that it is imperative that nothing should stifle flow of information into this database. However, their proposed action will do exactly that. For aviation safety data to be useful, the flow of information has to go in two directions, not just one. Cutting off the pubic from this information makes it less likely that the aviation safety community will learn from the experiences of others and use that knowledge to enhance safety.

The FAA can and should take steps to ensure the privacy of individuals who voluntarily submit safety data. However, protecting airports and airlines from the potential embarrassment of unfair or incompetent data analysis is not a valid reason to close public access to the database. The database exists in part to help prevent accidents and to help save lives. Putting a wall around this database may help to enhance the public's opinion of airlines and airports, but it will not help protect the public from risk. If the FAA's goal is to save lives then the database should remain available to the public, and they should not be allowed to implement their proposed changes.

The public has an opportunity to make its voice heard on this issue. In an upcoming post, will give you step-by-step instructions from submitting your comments prior to the close of the public comment period on 20 April 2009. will follow this issue closely, and in the next few days will provide detailed guidance on how to submit your comments to the FAA and prevent this policy change. If you have not done so already, please subscribe to the mailing list or get Twitter updates to keep up to date on this critical issue.

Related Information
FAA Proposal to Change Database Access
Background Information on Bird Strike Threats
Bird Strike Committee USA