Appeals Court: Airports have Wide Latitude to Kill Birds

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
January 27, 2016 Updated: August 1, 2018

By Larry Neumeister

NEW YORK—The operator of New York City’s airports has the legal right to kill migratory birds when necessary to protect planes, a federal appeals court said Jan. 26 as it rejected a challenge from an animal advocacy group.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey was within its rights to kill nearly any migratory bird in emergency situations, including when three snowy owls were killed in December 2013. Exceptions include bald eagles, golden eagles, or endangered and threatened species.

The appeals court recounted several “near-catastrophes” over the years at LaGuardia Airport and John F. Kennedy Airport, including the 2009 Hudson River emergency landing after Canada geese went into both engines, causing U.S. Airways Flight 1549 to lose power. No one was killed in the accident that was later referred to as The Miracle on the Hudson.

The ruling upholding a 2014 decision by U.S. District Judge John Gleeson in Brooklyn rejected an appeal from Friends of Animals. The group challenged the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s approval of emergency measures to diminish the population of birds at Kennedy airport.

Michael Harris, the legal director for Friends of Animals who argued the appeal, said the group was disappointed.

He said the appeals court was saying the law “legitimizes the indiscriminate, unnecessary killing of animals.”

“When birds that pose little to no risk to airline safety can be lawfully murdered, like those three snowy owls killed in December 2014, it speaks loudly to the nature of our nation’s moral character,” Harris said.

“Migratory birds that congregate near airports pose a well-known threat to human safety,” the 2nd Circuit said in a decision written by Circuit Judge Jose A. Cabranes.

The appeals court noted that the Port Authority has since 1994 annually renewed a permit allowing it to reduce the population of birds around its airports. It rejected an argument that the Port Authority could not reduce the population of species of birds it had not specified in its permit request.

It said the law as currently written “does not place Port Authority officials in the untenable position of having to choose between violating federal law and deliberately ignoring serious threats to human safety.”

Birds, which can shatter windshields, dent fuselages and shut down engines, usually do little or no damage to a plane, though contending with over 10,000 airplane bird strikes a year in the U.S. costs the airline industry about a billion dollars annually.