June 2, 2011
By Dan Namowitz
With two bills that would make it a crime to shine a laser pointer into an aircraft cockpit pending in Congress, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt have announced new civil penalties for the dangerous activity.
“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,” LaHood said in a statement released June 1.
In announcing civil penalties, LaHood and Babbitt cited a legal interpretation by the FAA that views shining a laser beam into a cockpit as a form of interfering with a flight crew--a violation of Federal Aviation Regulation 91.11.
“In the past, the FAA has taken enforcement action under this regulation against passengers physically on-board an aircraft who interfere with crewmembers,” their statement said.
Broadening the scope to include offenses with lasers, they said, “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 that could be imposed on an individual for violating the regulation is $11,000 per violation.
So far this year, pilots have reported more than 1,100 laser incidents. Reports have consistently increased from about 300 in 2005 to 2,836 in 2010. Formal reporting began in 2006.
Last year, Los Angeles International Airport recorded 102 laser events--the most for an individual airport, the FAA said. Chicago O’Hare International Airport was second, with 98.
Heightened awareness and outreach to pilots may have encouraged reporting, the FAA said. Other reasons for the increase may include “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.”
The Senate included language criminalizing purposeful aiming of laser devices at aircraft in the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act, which passed on Feb. 17. The House passed similar legislation Feb. 28. Both bills now await further action.
After the House passed its bill, AOPA Vice President of Legislative Affairs Lorraine Howerton said that the legislative efforts have “greatly enhanced” the chances that pilots will be protected from the threat of being blinded in flight by a laser beam.
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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