FAA needs stiffer penalties for idiots who point lasers at aircraft

Aircraft/ laser pointer incidents continue to rise significantly

It's pretty clear the penalties for pointing a laser at an aircraft, which can cause temporary blindness or make airliner pilots take evasive measures to avoid the laser light just are not stiff enough to deter the knuckleheads who insist on pulling the stunt.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today said the number of reported laser incidents nationwide rose again, for the fifth consecutive year to 3,592 in 2011. The actual numbers are:

  • 2010 -2,836
  • 2009 -1,527
  • 2008 -913
  • 2007 -590
  • 2006 -384

The FAA said it has taken enforcement action against 28 people charged with aiming a laser device at an aircraft since June 2011, and this week the agency directed FAA investigators and attorneys to pursue the stiffest possible sanctions for deliberate violations. The FAA said it has opened investigations in dozens of additional cases.

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The FAA announced last June it would begin to impose civil penalties against individuals who point a laser device at an aircraft. The maximum penalty for one laser strike is $11,000, and the FAA has proposed civil penalties against individuals for multiple laser incidents, with $30,800 the highest penalty proposed to date. In many of these cases, pilots have reported temporary blindness or had to take evasive measures to avoid the intense laser light.  The FAA said it supports the Department of Justice in its efforts to seek stern punishment for anyone who intentionally points a laser device into the cockpit of an aircraft.

The FAA says it tells investigators and attorneys laser violations should not be handled through warning notices or counseling. It also directs moderately high civil penalties for inadvertent violations, but maximum penalties for deliberate violations. Violators who are pilots or mechanics face revocation of their FAA certificates, as well as civil penalties, the FAA stated.

Last October the FAA created a website to make it easier for pilots and the public to report laser incidents and obtain information on the problem. Through Oct. 20. Pilots have reported the most laser events in 2011 in Phoenix, Philadelphia and Chicago.

The website here aggregates laser-aircraft information into one place and includes links for reporting laser incidents, laser statistics, FAA press releases, and FAA research on the dangers lasers can pose to pilots, as well as downloadable videos.

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Other efforts are also under way to reign in the problem.  In June of 2011, the he FAA released what it called a legal interpretation, which finds that directing a laser beam into an aircraft cockpit could interfere with a flight crew performing its duties while operating an aircraft, a violation of Federal Aviation Regulations. In the past, the FAA has taken enforcement action under this regulation against passengers physically on-board an aircraft who interfere with crewmembers.

The FAA says the increase in annual laser reports is likely due to a number of factors, including the availability of inexpensive laser devices on the Internet; increased power levels that enable lasers to reach aircraft at higher altitudes; more pilot reporting of laser strikes; and the introduction of green and blue lasers, which are more easily seen than red lasers.

The FBI last year said: "Those responsible for lasering aircraft fit two general profiles. Consistently, it's either minors with no criminal history or older men with criminal records. The teens are usually curious or fall victim to peer pressure.  The older men simply have a reckless disregard for the safety of others. There are also intentional acts of laser pointing by human traffickers or drug runners seeking to thwart airborne surveillance.

A quick look around at laser pointer stories on news sites in just the past few weeks gives you some perspective on the current deteriorating condition:

From the wydaily.com: When a police helicopter was flying overhead searching for a criminal suspect in Virginia Beach, Christopher Willingham did something he now acknowledges was "stupid": He pointed a green laser at the helicopter - temporarily blinding the pilot and halting the search.  That stunt was not only stupid - it was illegal: Willingham was charged with a felony under a federal law that prohibits pointing a laser at an aircraft. In January, Willingham pleaded guilty to interfering with the authorized operation of an aircraft and is scheduled for sentencing this week.  Willingham was prosecuted under federal law because there was no applicable state law. That will change on July 1, when a new Virginia law kicks in. The Virginia General Assembly passed the legislation - House Bill 87 - during its 2012 regular session. Gov. Bob McDonnell signed it into law on March 30.

From a Fox News site in Salt Lake City: Pilots from two planes filed a report with authorities saying someone on the ground pointed laser light at their aircraft before landing at Salt Lake International Airport Thursday night. One of the reports was filed by a Southwest Airlines captain, who saw the light while his commercial plane was making its descent somewhere over West Jordan. The other pilot was flying a Learjet and Salt Lake Airport authorities say he saw the laser light in the same vicinity as the Southwest pilot. Each pilot states they were about 6,000 feet elevation and roughly 13 miles from the Salt Lake City airport, putting the origin of the lights in West Jordan. "This can be an extreme hazard to aviation. The aircraft is in the landing configuration, it's slow, the flight crew can be harmed," says Randy Burg, director of operations at Salt Lake International.

From the ChicagoTribune.com: On Sunday, Lodi police officers arrested Charles Brill, 52, who they said pointed his green laser beam at a California Highway Patrol aircraft that was flying near his home. Brill is not the only one to be arrested for shining his laser pointer upwards.  In fact, according to CHP officer and chopper pilot Kevin Vinatieri, arrests for laser abuse happen more often than you might think. These occurrences are so common that the Federal Aviation Administration passed a law in June 2011 stating that anyone pointing their laser into the cockpit of any flying craft could face serious fines and/or prison time. In the Lodi case, CHP officers operating an aircraft pinpointed the coordinates of the source of a laser beam that was being pointed at their plane. They notified Lodi police officers, who said they arrived at a home on the 500 block of Forrest Avenue to find Brill and his laser beam. Brill said he meant no harm, only that he liked to look at the sparkle the beam created against the metal of the plane.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8 and on Facebook

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