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In Manila, birds and planes on a collision course

JM TUAZON, GMA News
07/08/2011 | 01:53 PM

It's a bird, it's a plane... and they're both sharing the same flight path in Metro Manila.

That has led to recent incidents, so far not injuring anyone, of birds flying into planes, called bird strikes, causing enough concern for aviation authorities to consider paving over a natural bird lagoon near Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA).

In May, for example, a bird ran into the body of one of the Philippine Airlines' aircraft, damaging the plane.

But the lagoon is also a proclaimed bird sanctuary protected by law and a stopover point for some 80 species of migratory birds. It's a favorite spot for birdwatchers, who relish the sight of Purple Herons and Pied Avocets, among other visiting species.

Officials of the Manila International Airport Authority (MIAA) said an increase in bird strikes of planes at the airport was recorded in the past few months, heightening their worry over flight safety. They're studying the possibility of creating another bird sanctuary away from planes' flight paths to Manila's airports.

"Pinapag-aralan muna kung posible mang mangyari na mailipat sila (bird sanctuary), mas well and good na malayo sa runway," Joseph Agustin, OIC of the Airport Ground Operations and Safety Division of the MIAA, told the mid-morning newscast News To Go.

Agustin said birds could ram into the planes or get sucked into engines, causing flight disruptions and possibly, air crashes.

In one of the more notorious international incidents, US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger heroically landed his jet on the Hudson River in an emergency landing in 2009 after he told air traffic controllers that a "double bird strike" crippled both engines shortly after takeoff.

Nothing of the sort has occurred in the Philippines, but MIAA officials apparently have no intention of waiting before taking action, discussing the issue with local government officials.

One plan is to amend an 18-year-old ban on breeding pigeons within five kilometers of the airport.

Instead of five kilometers, authorities suggest raising the coverage of the ban to 13 kilometers. The wider area will include the Parañaque-Las Pinas bird lagoon.

Deadlock

Wild birds present a thornier problem. According to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), a mere local ordinance cannot overturn a Presidential Proclamation issued by former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo declaring the coastal lagoon a bird sanctuary and eco-tourism area.

"An ordinance cannot supersede a Presidential Proclamation, [the latter] will always prevail," said Director Reynaldo Villafuerte of the DENR-NCR.

Villafuerte said that it is impossible that migratory birds were responsible for the recent spate of bird strikes in the airport, since the migration season has not begun yet.

"Wala kaming ganoon kalaking ibon diyan. The month of May is summer season, these migratory birds do not come [during] summer. Usually, they come in the months of September and October," he explained.

Counter to natural flight path of birds

Meanwhile, Mike Lu, president of the Wild Birds Club Philippines, said the proposed reclamation runs counter to the natural flight path of birds.

"[This sanctuary] is their flight path, at eto yung isa sa mga stopover areas nila. The whole Manila Bay is considered an IBA or Important Bird Area," he said.

Should the plan push through, Lu said the authorities run the risk of making the public suffer the consequences.

"That means all the resident birds here will either die or try to find some place else. [This is the] stopover place of the birds, it means they would have to fly further away, or they will find the next open area, which is the airport," Lu said.

Reclamation

Meanwhile, aside from airport safety issues, the same bird sanctuary is also in danger of being replaced by a P14-billion reclamation project being pushed in the area.

According to a report on community news site Allvoices.com, fisherfolk group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) claimed that reclamation caused the rapid deterioration of the bird population in the lagoon, from a high of 28,000 birds four decades ago until it nosedived to only 5,000 today.

The group has already asked the Supreme Court to uphold its ruling on bay rehabilitation and clean-up.

“The court should instruct Malacañang and PRA to cease and desist from pushing a destructive plan in favor of a new business center that is triggered by the development slogan Public-Private Partnership (PPP)," the group stressed.

Authorities watching over the lagoon have come up with a compromise measure, which will see an installation of a channel and a bridge for a waterway between the proposed reclamation and the bird sanctuary, so as not to cut the lagoon off from Manila Bay. — VVP/HS, GMA News