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Drones near airports a real danger: Aviation expert

Recent close calls between airplanes and drones near a New York City airport are raising concerns about passenger safety.

On Sunday night, a Delta Airlines pilot and a Virgin Atlantic pilot both spotted an unmanned aircraft on their final approach to John F. Kennedy International Airport. It was flying at altitudes between 3,000 and 2,000 feet. On Wednesday, a Jet Blue pilot saw one about 2 miles away from the runway.

"We just had something fly over us. I don't know if it was a drone or a balloon, it just came real quick," the Delta pilot said.

"This presents a real danger. It could be a lot worse than a bird strike," said Kenn Honig, president of Critical Incident and Management Training and a former executive with Port Authority, which oversees the area's airports.

A Virgin Atlantic plane taxis past a Delta plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport in N.Y.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images
A Virgin Atlantic plane taxis past a Delta plane at John F. Kennedy International Airport in N.Y.

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It was a bird strike that brought down a U.S. Airways jet almost six years ago. The crash, in which the airline lost both engines when it struck a flock of birds during takeoff, became known as the "miracle on the Hudson" when the pilot brought it down in New York's Hudson River.

In the drone incidents, the pilots did not report taking evasive action, and all three flights landed safely.

Honig noted that even if a drone doesn't strike a plane, it could still be "a major problem."

"It could pop up in flight path and the pilot has to take evasive action which could, even if it doesn't cause a crash, could injure the people aboard the aircraft," he said.

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However, he's confident that the perpetrator or perpetrators will eventually be caught.

"It's only a matter of time and in a short order the police officials and the local officials will get together and they will catch somebody and they will make an example of them," Honig said.