FAA – Lasers And Airplanes: It’s Only A Matter Of Time

Despite all of the attention and action taken over the past three years, lasers continue to be a serious problem for aviation safety.  Just this week, four more planes had lasers shined into their cockpits at an altitude of several thousand feet.  This comes on top of reports last week of sixteen planes being targets of lasers over New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Most people look at “street legal” lasers, which have power of 5 milliwatts or less, as harmless toys, but as this picture shows, even these low-power lasers can produce a blinding glare in a cockpit at over a quarter mile.  Even more serious, lasers 100 times more powerful are used for a wide array of commercial and medical purposes and are subject to abuse.  For example, in March of this year, a man was arrested after his misuse of a laser resulted in eye injuries to three pilots and two police officers who were looking for the laser’s origin.

So, how widespread is the problem?  According to the FAA, the number of reported laser incidents has gone from 2,837 in 2010 to 3,894 in 2014.  Is this problem the result of a lack of laws or enforcement actions?  No.  The man in the incident above was arrested and charged with “assault on a police officer, felony assault, menacing a police officer, reckless endangerment and criminal possession of a weapon.”  In addition to these sorts of charges that can be brought under state law, aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft is a federal crime under 18 U.S.C. § 39A, and is punishable by fine and up to five years imprisonment.  The FAA Chief Counsel’s Office has also held that shining a laser at an aircraft constitutes interference with a crewman in the performance of his duties.  As a result, the FAA can pursue the matter as a civil penalty action with a maximum fine of $25,000  for each occurrence.

This problem is, in many ways, the same one that arises from UAS operations near airports.  There is a proliferation of very capable technology at a very low cost.  As a result, there are a large number of people using devices who do not have a very clear understanding of either what the risks are, what the consequences might be of careless actions, or, simply stated, don’t care.  Perhaps it’s time for the FAA to update its laser safety page and once again, shine a “spotlight” on this issue.

(Originally posted July 23, 2015)

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