House passes penalties for aiming lasers at aircraft

March 1, 2011

A bill that would make it a crime to aim laser pointers at aircraft has passed the House and moves to the Senate, where similar legislation has been included as an amendment to the FAA authorization bill.

The House bill, titled the Securing Aircraft Cockpits Against Lasers Act of 2011, passed Feb. 28 on a voice vote after being reported out by the House Judiciary Committee on Jan. 26. Sponsored by Rep. Dan Lungren (R- Calif.), the bill makes it a crime punishable by fines, up to five years in prison, or both to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft.

“The danger from shining a laser at the cockpit of any aircraft is a tragedy waiting to happen. Today we took the necessary steps to help prosecute individuals that engage in this sort of act against public safety,” Lungren said on the bill’s passage. “The ominous prospect of a catastrophe from shining a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft is particularly high during the take-off and landing stages. In one instance the pilot thought he was about to strike the warning light on a tower. In another case the laser beam was thought to be the lights of an approaching aircraft.”

Lungren said that the problem of lasers being aimed at cockpit crews has become “so prevalent in the Sacramento area that the FBI, FAA, and the Federal Air Marshal Service have joined with state and local law enforcement in establishing a Laser Strike Working Group.”

AOPA reported on Jan. 20 that laser incidents involving aircraft almost doubled from 2009 to 2010 according to FAA data. The increase was attributed to a variety of factors including increased availability of inexpensive laser pointers through internet purchases, higher powered laser pointers, and increased reporting of incidents by pilots.

Lungren’s bill makes exceptions including authorized research and flight testing, or an individual using a laser emergency signaling device.
The Senate now must decide whether to consider the measure as a stand-alone bill or wait for the Congress to pass a final FAA authorization bill with the laser-pointer amendment included. The laser-pointer amendment passed the Senate 96-1.

“Since the House passed this bill and similar language is included in the Senate-passed FAA Reauthorization bill, the prospects of making it a crime to point lasers at aircraft and protecting pilots is greatly enhanced,” said Lorraine Howerton, AOPA vice president of legislative affairs.

The Senate passed its FAA authorization bill 87-8 on Feb. 17. In the House, a reauthorization measure has cleared the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and now awaits floor action.

Several measures seeking to address the problem of lasers being aimed at aircraft have come before Congress since 2005 but did not become law. Pilots can review the background of the issue of the laser pointer hazard in this AOPA Air Traffic Services Brief.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz | Aviation Writer

Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.