Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Administrator Randy Babbitt have announced 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.
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“This is another great tool for law enforcement to help protect flight crews and the public from the hazard of lasers pointed at aircraft,” said Sergeant Morrie Zager, a helicopter pilot assigned to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Aero Bureau.
“People have been arrested and convicted for the federal crime of interfering with a flight crew, because they intentionally pointed lasers at the cockpit and interfered with the operation of the aircraft. This is extremely serious and lives could be lost in the air and on the ground as a result.”
In the past seven months, helicopter pilots and Aero Bureau aircraft from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department had lasers pointed at them six times while in flight. Four suspects have been arrested.
The incidents included:
- April 26, 2011 – Pico Rivera Sheriff’s Station area. A 16-year old Asian male resident of Los Alamitos was arrested.
- April 18, 2011 – Century Sheriff’s Station area (near Lynwood)
- January 23, 2011 – West Covina area
- December 20, 2010 – Pico Rivera Sheriff’s Station area. A 15-year old Hispanic male resident of Pico Rivera was arrested.
- December 11, 2010 – Industry Sheriff’s Station area (La Puente). Antonio Chavez, a 25-year old Hispanic male resident of La Puente was arrested.
- September 22, 2010 – East Los Angeles Sheriff’s Station area. (Maywood) Julio Pineda a 25-year old Hispanic male resident of Maywood was arrested.
Pointing a laser at an aircraft is extremely dangerous and is a felony punishable by up to three years in state prison and a fine of $2,000.00. It can also be a Federal offense, punishable by 20 years in Federal Prison. Sheriff’s deputies, police officers and all law enforcement ask that for the safety of the pilots and people on the ground, if you see someone point a laser at an aircraft, immediately call 9-1-1 and report it.
“When the laser hits the plexiglass windshield, it refracts the light and fills the cockpit with laser light, causing disorientaiton or temporary blindness. It has caused long term damage to some pilots,” said Zager. “This is a serious matter. The pilot’s disorientation could cause loss of control of the aircraft.”
During previous incidents, pilots have been so distracted or disoriented by laser lights, they have had to land, cancel landings, or take evasive action resulting in not being able to help the public, in order to ensure the safety of flight crews and people on the ground.
The number of incidents nationally in which people pointed lasers at planes and helicopters nearly doubled when comparing 2009 to 2010, from 1,527 incidents in 2009 to 2,836 incidents in 2010, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The 108 incidents at the Los Angeles airport last year, was more than any other airport in the nation, as reported by the FAA.
The FAA released a legal interpretation
(http://www.faa.gov/news/media/Laser%20Memorandum%20Final%20060111.pdf ) 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.
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.