Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Randy Babbitt announced today that the FAA will begin to impose civil penalties against people who point a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft. “Our top priority is protecting the safety of the traveling public. We will not hesitate to take tough action against anyone who threatens the safety of our passengers, pilots and air transportation system,” said Secretary LaHood.
“Shining a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft is not a joke. These lasers can temporarily blind a pilot and make it impossible to safely land the aircraft, jeopardizing the safety of the passengers and people on the ground,” said FAA Administrator Babbitt. The FAA released 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.
Today’s interpretation reflects the fact that pointing a laser at an aircraft from the ground could seriously impair a pilot’s vision and interfere with the flight crew’s ability to safely handle its responsibilities.
The maximum civil penalty the FAA can impose on an individual for violating the FAA’s regulations that prohibit interfering with a flight crew is $11,000 per violation.
This year, pilots have reported more than 1,100 incidents nationwide of lasers being pointed at aircraft. Laser event reports have steadily increased since the FAA created a formal reporting system in 2005 to collect information from pilots. Reports rose from nearly 300 in 2005 to 1,527 in 2009 and 2,836 in 2010.
In 2010, Los Angeles International Airport recorded the highest number of laser events in the country for an individual airport with 102 reports, and the greater Los Angeles area tallied nearly twice that number, with 201 reports. Chicago O’Hare International Airport was a close second, with 98 reports, and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport tied for the third highest number of laser events for the year with 80 each.
So far this year, the Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth areas each have recorded more than 45 laser events. The Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston areas each have recorded more than 30 laser events.
The increase in reports is likely due to a number of factors, including greater awareness and outreach to pilots to encourage reporting; the availability of inexpensive laser devices on the Internet; stronger power levels that enable lasers to hit aircraft at higher altitudes; and the introduction of green lasers, which are more easily seen than red lasers.
Some cities and states have laws making it illegal to shine lasers at aircraft and, in many cases, people can face federal charges. The FAA is prepared to work with federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies to assist with criminal prosecutions arising under those laws.
Legislation that would criminalize purposefully aiming a laser device at an aircraft is currently pending in Congress. The Senate included this language in the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act, which it passed on Feb. 17, 2011. On Feb. 28, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would enact a similar penalty for shining lasers at aircraft. Both bills are awaiting further action.