[IQP] Preventing Bird Strikes at Tocumen International Airport: An Approach through an Improved Waste Management System

Sponsor: Copa Airlines
Student Team: Tristan Cano
Constantina Drakontis
Joshua Moniz
John Peter Ramos
Abstract: The large amount of refuse deposited in the vicinity of Tocumen International Airport attracts birds to the areas near the runways. Bird strikes pose safety hazards, cause delays, and damage equipment, deeming them a major concern for Copa Airlines and aviation as a whole. Observations of everyday airport and community activity were made, and interviews were conducted with stakeholders. Findings included, but were not limited to, the mishandling of waste in both the community and the airport. Based on the findings, recommendations were developed in order to improve the waste management system in the community, as well as the airport.
Links: Final Report

Executive Summary

Bird strikes are a major and frequently problem at airports. In the year 2000, a study estimated the cost of bird strike damage and delays to be $1.2 billion USD per year (Allan). Not only do bird strikes pose a massive financial risk to airline companies, they also cause passenger safety issues. A recent example is in 2009 when multiple bird strikes caused US Airways Flight 1549 to lose its engines, and the pilot had to make an emergency crash landing in the Hudson River (National Transportation Safety Board, 2010). Even though there were no fatalities in this crash thanks to the expert landing by the pilot, from 1988 to 2013, 255 people were killed and 243 aircraft were destroyed because of bird strikes (Dolbeer, 2014).

Although Panama’s Tocumen International Airport has attempted to prevent bird strikes through various types of deterrents, the problem has persisted over the last several years (Domínguez, 2016). A major reason behind the bird strikes is the waste buildup near the runways of the airport, specifically within the communities surrounding the airport as well as within the airport itself (Cheng, 2015). The waste management systems currently in place are inadequate and inconsistent, resulting in the continued attraction of birds to the areas surrounding the runways. This inefficiency has been, and will continue to be, exacerbated by the rapid population growth and urbanization of Panama City, specifically the community in Tocumen.

Copa Airlines recognizes that the waste buildup in the Tocumen communities is one of the main attractants to the birds which have been causing the bird strikes (Domínguez, 2016). With a new second terminal under construction currently, the waste management problem within the airport seems to be evolving, and is expected to become even more serious when the terminal starts operating (Lizarraga, 2016). Dissatisfaction and lack of communication between the waste management company in charge of collecting the waste in Tocumen and the residents were found to be the main obstacles preventing an efficient waste management system up to this point. This project focused on confirming the waste buildup as one of the causes of bird strikes as well as investigating the potential shortcomings of the current waste management system of the Tocumen community and the airport itself.


The overall goal of this project is to prevent bird strikes from occurring at Tocumen International Airport in Panama through recommendations for improvements the waste management plan for the airport itself as well as for the surrounding community. In order to achieve this goal, the following objectives have been defined:

  1. Assess the state of waste management in Tocumen community, as well as in the airport.
  2. Identify the types of waste and causes of buildup, then attribute factors to the current waste situation.
  3. Evaluate the level of knowledge about the waste situation among the stakeholders.
  4. Determine the level of concern among categories of stakeholders.
  5. Recommend improvements for the waste management plan in the Tocumen community and the airport.


A methodology was developed to achieve the project’s objectives and overall goals. An overview of that methodology is as follows: On-site visitations of the Tocumen community were one of the most significant tasks on our project. We were able to assess the state of waste management situation in the community, identify the types of waste and causes of buildup, noting the factors contributing to the current state of the refuse problem. We focused on on-site visitations of the community and conducting short interviews with multiple residents. Questions were asked in order to obtain the reason for the buildup of refuse according to the community members. Observations made and data collected during the visitations were recorded and then further analyzed in order to fulfill the goals of the project. These short interviews made it possible to evaluate the level of knowledge about the waste situation among the residents and gather an overall idea of the community’s opinion on the waste management system in place.

Accordingly, to have a clear and better understanding of the refuse situation in the airport itself, we visited the airport land and interviewed staff from Tocumen International Airport and Copa Airlines. Through visitations of the areas that are most affected by the waste problem, the situation at hand was better observed and evaluated. The interviewees included, but were not limited to, operational managers, the Copa ground safety manager, the Copa ground safety investigator, and the Tocumen public relations manager. Through correspondence with the sponsor, the level of concern for the bird strikes was determined. Also, by examining bird strike data collected by the company, the desired effort to mitigate bird strikes can be examined. However, Copa Airlines is not the only airline operating at Tocumen International Airport. Interviews were conducted with staff of the airport in order to determine the level of concern at the airport about bird strikes. In addition to Copa, other airlines operating at the airport are affected by bird strikes, and they may support suggested improvements to the waste management systems proposed by this report.

In addition, research on best waste management practices from similar cases was also done, in order to find successful previous practices that could potentially be applicable in our situation.

A community education program which is established by a waste management authority, Autoridad de Aseo, was observed and the leaders of the program were interviewed in order to evaluate possible improvements to the program. Depending upon the interview results, the community education program can be improved and extended. Possible improvements include suggestions for better waste disposal habits, and possibly improving the relations between the municipality and the community. Suggestions on specific waste management improvements were made after obtaining data and information based upon several factors, including, but not limited to, the types of waste present, the results from the conducted interviews, the extent of the success of the waste management company, and the successes of different strategies in similar situations worldwide.

Finally, the recommendations and findings of our project were presented to Copa Airlines and the administration of Tocumen International Airport. They have the ability to implement the developed recommendations to the waste management systems both in the airport itself but also cooperate with the Tocumen community.


Concerning the community at Tocumen:

1) The existing waste collection system present in the Tocumen community was determined to be inconsistent, leading to confusion amongst the residents concerning what the waste collection system truly accomplishes. Ninety-five percent of our interviewees claimed that they are not comfortable or content with the amount of waste in the streets. However, when the residents were asked what days the waste collection trucks come through, answers varied from once a day to once a month. This indicates that the waste collection system present is inconsistent and, most importantly, that residents are not properly informed about the exact schedule, if one does exist. Even the residents who indicated weekly or biweekly pickup of waste from the trucks were unable to indicate on which specific days this occurred.

2) The methods of disposal of waste varied throughout the interviewed residents, and included both proper and improper handling of waste. During the on-site visitations conducted at the community, numerous residents were witnessed dumping their waste on the side of the roads. On the question concerning waste disposal, fifty-five percent of the interviewees indicated improper waste disposal, i.e., confirming that they had left waste by the roadside. The other forty-five percent of answers included door to door pickup, placing in a dumpster, using a private waste management company, and waiting for a truck to come by.

3) Due to a large percentage of residents mishandling waste, a large amount of refuse was witnessed along the roadways. Approximately 7,500 families in the Tocumen community leave their waste in the streets. Hence, there are numerous clusters of waste throughout the community. From the on-site visitations it was determined that even though a great amount of the waste was bagged, it was not always properly closed and many times simply dumped uncovered. This attracts scavenging animals, which then attracts larger birds, and this also makes waste collection very challenging for the workers. This results in a large amount of waste being left behind even after the truck has collected the majority of bags.

4) A recent implementation of a youth community education program concerning waste management at a local school could serve as a starting point for long-term cultural change in the community. The program is run by Autoridad de Aseo, a government agency, and has been implemented since May 2016, running once a week for 6 months. It is directed towards children aged 9-10 years old and its aim is to educate a group of about 25 selected kids from different classrooms about waste management, in the hopes of those kids passing their knowledge to their friends and families. Children were excited about the program and took part in all activities, showing optimism about the next generation.

Concerning the airport itself:

1) International waste is collected twice daily by Servicios Tecnológicos de Incineratión (STI), totaling approximately 300,000 kg of monthly waste as shown in Appendix B. The waste collection process removes approximately six tons of waste every day, with approximately 350 waste bags removed in the morning collection process, and about 270 waste bags in the evening process.

2) While waste from international flights arriving at Tocumen is currently transported to a waste incineration facility in Colón, a future plan is in progress to build a waste incineration facility on-site near the cargo terminal. Due to mandatory regulations, all international waste must be incinerated. After the waste is collected at the airport, the truck travels about fifty miles to the incineration facility, situated in Colón. The distance is long enough to allow the waste from incoming flights to fill up the bins, and sometimes even overflow. This is why the airport operations staff has begun plans to build an onsite incineration facility at the airport. With the new terminal on the way, there will be an additional twenty-two waste pickup locations. By building an on-site waste incineration facility, waste could be collected multiple times each day at all four terminals.

3) Insufficient bin coverage and bin capacity were noted at the various ramp and gate locations at the terminal. During the on-site visitations, several overflowing bins were witnessed. Bins were also often uncovered, attracting birds to the area. At the same time, many bins were empty or unfilled. This shows lack of ability to manage the waste of the incoming flights, which is something that could easily be fixed.

4) Low quality waste collection bags are transferred by hand by STI workers to a waste collection truck. In an interview with the Cabin Services Manager for Copa Airlines, he specified that the thickness of the waste bags was 0.8 mil, or 0.02 mm, which is the lowest allowed by regulations. While witnessing the waste collection process at the airport, several waste bags were observed to be torn or punctured, with refuse spilling out. Sometimes, the waste collection workers would not notice, and the loose refuse would be left behind.

5) Loose refuse in ramp areas attracts birds, despite the current bird deterrents in place. In addition to the waste that spills out of the ripped waste bags, a noted contributor to the loose refuse problem is the workers themselves. Small birds are attracted to the waste on the ramps that is easily accessible. While walking through the airport ramps, a bird was photographed with a worker’s food waste in its mouth. Even though the airport and Copa have attempted to take measures in order to scare the birds away by implementing sound deterrents, the birds can easily become accustomed to the sounds.


For the Tocumen Community Representatives:

1) Establish designated waste disposal locations. This will encourage a large majority of residents to only dispose of their waste in these specified areas and loose waste near the main street streets and bus stops will decrease.

2) Establish a fixed waste collection schedule with Autoridad de Aseo. A set schedule clearly communicated between the community and the waste authority (Autoridad de Aseo) will allow for the community to collaborate with the waste collection workers on collection days so that no stray refuse is left behind.

3) Work with Autoridad de Aseo to improve waste collection efficiency. Often a truck will fill completely before completing its collection route leaving refuse behind and allowing leftover waste to accumulate over time, indicating that the waste collection is not efficient. An increased capacity is needed and could come in the form of added trucks or also be accounted for by an increased collection frequency in the area.

4) Work with Autoridad de Aseo to obtain more waste collection bins. Receptacles for waste were a rarity. Public dumpsters should be stationed at specified points for residents to dispose of their waste, providing a place to put refuse, but also preventing a large amount of animals from feeding on the waste.

5) Expand community education program on waste management. The current community education program established by Autoridad de Aseo is a significant step forward to improving the way that residents view waste. This program is well received by the children involved as stated previously, and should be expanded to involve more children.

6) Establish a recycling program. If the Autoridad de Aseo can encourage recycling and possibly establish a system for residents to recycle plastic in exchange for a reasonable price, it would help the waste situation. An established recycling program not only reduces the impact on the environment, but can be a relatively inexpensive way to remove waste from the cities and surrounding areas.

For Tocumen International Airport and Copa Airlines:

1) Provide larger or more adequate amounts of waste collection bins in ramp areas. By increasing the capacity that the total number of bins can handle during the periods between collections, there can some alleviation to the loose waste issue.

2) Establish an employee education program emphasizing foreign object debris (FOD). If employees are aware of the dangers associated with FOD, a higher level of concern among the workers in the ramp area will ensue.

3) Provide higher quality waste collection bags to limit tearing. Although the waste collection bags for international waste comply with regulations, they do so with the smallest allowable thickness, roughly 0.8 mil, or 0.02 mm (Escobar, 2016). The thickness of the bags may also leave them susceptible to puncture by birds or other wildlife.

4) Limit transfer of waste by hand within the airport. Utilization of trucks equipped to lift and empty dumpsters can increase efficiency of the waste removal process. It will also reduce the amount of stray and loose waste that is dispersed during the waste transfer process.

5) Ensure waste collection bins are covered when not in use. As with every type of waste receptacle, failing to place a cover over the waste leaves the bags inside vulnerable to puncturing via wildlife or other outside factors. In order to prevent this potential attraction, it is recommended that the waste collection bins on the ramps remain closed when not in use by staff.

6) Proceed with plan to build an on-site incineration facility. It is highly recommended that the on-site incineration facility on airport grounds be completed as quickly as possible in order to both help solve the loose waste issue and facilitate the introduction of other methods of waste reduction at the airport