5 Handy Airport Animal Helpers

Airports rely on a menagerie of animal aides from llamas to hawks to keep their operations on track. Colleen Benelli/flickr

Think airports are just staffed by people? Think again. Plenty of airports also employ animals to handle a variety of vital duties from security detail to passenger therapy.

What do these working critters have that people don’t? They possess superior senses, skills and instincts that make them more effective at specific jobs.

Here are aviation’s top furry and feathery hired hands.

1. Flying runway defenders

Hawk on patrol at Toronto Pearson International Airport
A hawk returns to a wildlife officer after runway patrol at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Falcon Environmental Services

The idea that birds can bring down an airplane took hold in a big way in January 2009 when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger miraculously landed his Airbus 320 on the Hudson River after geese were sucked into both engines and shut them down. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, more than 56,000 airplane wildlife strikes (birds, bats, deer and other mammals) occurred between 1990 and 2014.

Granted, most of these strikes didn’t cause major damage or fatalities, but airports are trying to proactively reduce the risks. Toronto Pearson International Airport, for instance, uses trained falcons and hawks to chase geese and other birds off runways.

2. Pest-patrolling pooches

Piper on runway duty
Piper on runway duty wearing his special goggles and ear protectors. airportk9.org

Dogs are another effective bird and wildlife deterrent. Portland International Airport in Oregon deploys a border collie named Fish to fend off potentially hazardous geese and other waterfowl, and Cherry Capital Airport in Traverse City, Michigan, has its own border collie named Piper. As K-9 wildlife manager, 7-year-old Piper not only keeps runways and taxiways clear but also regularly sniffs out rodents and small mammals that attract potentially hazardous birds of prey. And like anyone who works outside under risky and noisy conditions, this tail-wagging vigilante dons safety equipment, including 100 percent UV protective goggles and special earmuffs to guard his hearing.

3. Calming canines

therapy dog at Denver International Airport
Waiting airport passengers in Denver get a special visit from Nelson, a Newfoundland therapy dog, and his handler, Ron Horn. Courtesy of Denver International Airport

Man’s best friend does more than guard against wildlife strikes. Dogs are also particularly proficient at soothing nervous travelers. In many airports around the nation, therapy dogs are now a common sight. Denver International Airport (DIA), for example, offers CATS, a humorous cross-species acronym for its Canine Airport Therapy Squad. The team of more than 25 dogs is specially trained and each is registered with the Alliance of Therapy Dogs. DIA encourages waiting passengers to “hug them, pet them and take pictures with them” to help relieve stress and add a bit of levity to the travel experience.

4. Weed-whackers from the barnyard

goats at Portland International Airport
Goats on munch duty at Portland International Airport in Oregon. Port of Portland

In addition to its canine runway patrol, Oregon's Portland International Airport also let loose a herd of 40 goats and a llama last year to trim invasive blackberries, thistle and other weeds growing in hard-to-mow areas around its property. Because goats are prolific — and indiscriminate — munchers, they help the airport avoid spraying harmful herbicides or using employees to pull prickly weeds by hand. They also reduce habitat for birds and other wildlife that interfere with planes. What about the llama? With its imposing size and aggressive disposition, it’s a perfect foil against coyotes looking to prey on the goats.

Chicago’s O’Hare Airport has taken the idea of animal-powered lawn maintenance even further with its eclectic herd of grazing goats, sheep, llamas and burros. All hail from a nearby animal rescue center.

5. Dog sniffers

TSA dog screens passenger
A TSA bomb-sniffing dog screens a passenger arriving for check-in at Philadelphia International Airport. Provided by TSA

Airport security lines seem to get longer all the time. The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) thinks it has the answer — let more dogs out. Specifically, the agency is expanding its team of specially trained passenger screening canines (PSCs) to search fliers for explosives at airport checkpoints. Those who pass the sniff test may not have to go through certain security steps, like removing their shoes or taking laptops out of bags — meaning expedited check-in.

Several airports around the country, including Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and Philadelphia International Airport, now have K-9 teams on duty, both in cargo areas and passenger lines. Furry bomb-sniffers are proving so successful, the TSA recently opened a new larger canine training facility at Lackland Airforce Base in San Antonio, Texas.