Laser Pointer Aircraft Attacks Double in 2010

WASHINGTON: Simple handheld laser pointers are becoming an increasing threat to aircraft pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration this week said that reported incidents of lasers pointed at airplanes and helicopters doubled last year to more than 2,800. The figure marks the most since the FCC started keeping track in 2005.

Laser pointers, which resemble fountain pens, can temporary blind pilots or cause permanent damage to their eyesight.

“This is a serious safety issue,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Lasers can distract and harm pilots who are working to get passengers safely to their destinations.”

The FAA reported that Los Angeles International Airport recorded the highest number of laser events in the country for an individual airport in 2010, with 102 reports. The greater Los Angeles area, which has around 35 commercial, military and general aviation airfields, tallied 201. Chicago O’Hare followed L.A. with 98 reports. Phoenix Sky Harbor and San Jose, Calif.’s Norman Mineta were next with 80 each.

The FCC tracks laser incidents through formal pilot reports. Nearly 300 were submitted in 2005, including one from the pilot of a news chopper for WNBC-TV in New York. A total of 1,527 were reported in 2009, and 2,836 last year.

“The FAA is actively warning people not to point high-powered lasers at aircraft because they can damage a pilot’s eyes or cause temporary blindness,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. “We continue to ask pilots to immediately report laser events to air traffic controllers so we can contact local law enforcement officials.”

A man in Central Florida faced a 20-year prison sentence for shining a laser pointer into the cockpit of a sheriff’s department helo, APreports.

The FAA said that “some cities and states have laws making it illegal to shine lasers at aircraft and, in many cases, people can face federal charges.”

The agency said the increase in reports could be attributed to several factors, including the growing availability of green laser pointers, which have greater visibility than red ones. Newer devices are also more powerful and can reach higher altitudes. Pilot reporting is also said to be on the rise.

-- Deborah D. McAdams