Bill allowing airport personnel to shoo birds poised to become law

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Apr. 30--A bill that gives airport managers more leeway to shoo wildlife -- including birds -- off runways has passed the state House and made it through two initial readings in the Senate on Wednesday. Despite ruffling some environmentalists' feathers, it appears poised to get Senate approval before the session concludes Friday.

What does the Airline Safety and Wildlife Protection Act do?

It prevents airports from being penalized if they accidentally harm an animal that's interfering with a flight. For example, at Orlando Sanford International Airport, airport workers often shoot paint balls to frighten away eagles. Larry Dale, chief executive officer and president of the airport, said workers never aim for the eagles, instead shooting around them. The new bill protects the airport from penalties if an eagle were accidentally shot.

How do environmentalists feel about it?

Julie Wraithmell, wildlife-policy coordinator for Audubon of Florida, said it goes too far.

"There's a lot of people boiling this down simply to the issue of people first, birds second," she said. "Florida is a more sophisticated state than that." She questioned how the intent would be determined when animals were killed by airport workers.

"It's not like there's going to be any kind of authority there to witness and attest to whether or not that action was accidental," she said.

But, Wraithmell said, the new version is better than the original. The current bill specifies that airport managers aren't immune from liability if they are negligent. A provision was added that prohibits airports from dredging or filling wetlands in most cases. The final bill also bars airport workers from trespassing on neighboring properties.

Why was this bill created?

House sponsor Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, said it was spurred by a combination of that US Airways flight that landed in the Hudson River and his wife's experience with a flight delayed because of bird strikes. Plakon said the bill strikes a good balance between public safety and protecting wildlife. "It's not like it gives them free rein," he said. "It would remove what in some cases has been a chilling effect where they're afraid to do things to keep the traveling public safe."

Plakon hopes it becomes a model for other states.

Rachael Jackson can be reached at rjackson@orlandosentinel.com or 407-540-4358.

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