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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

FAA: Shining Lasers at Aircraft 'Not a Joke'

Violators face up to $11,000 in federal penalties in addition to criminal charges.

By Andrew Parker, Senior Editor

In continuing efforts to raise awareness of the dangers of pointing a handheld laser at helicopters and other low-flying aircraft, FAA will now seek up to $11,000 from anyone who does it, in addition to criminal charges.

“We want everyone to realize this is serious,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who along with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood released a legal interpretation, “Interference with a Crewmember via Laser, 14 CFR 91.11,” on June 1. “These are not jokes,” Babbitt continued, adding that lasers are distracting to pilots and, in extreme cases, can result in permanent eye damage. LaHood added that the government “will not hesitate to take tough action” against anyone who threatens the safety of passengers or crew.

“These are not toys, and this is dangerous,” Babbitt said. “What they might think is an innocent prank can be deadly, and to suffer a loss of vision at low altitudes could have very serious consequences to both the crew and the passengers onboard a commercial airplane.” In addition to low-flying commercial jets that are landing or taking off, helicopters are frequent targets of lasers because they fly at lower speeds and altitudes than fixed-wing counterparts. (More: "Seeing the Light," R&W May 2011)

The legal interpretation states that FAA “is aware of an increasing number of incident of lasers being pointed at aircraft, a scenario that could not have been contemplated by the drafters of the initial rule,” which was originally adopted in 1961 and amended in 1999. FAA recognized in Advisory Circular 70-2, issued in January 2005, “that the exposure of air crews to laser illumination may cause hazardous effects … which could adversely affect the ability to carry out their responsibilities.” Potential dangers include distracted flying, “glare, after-image flash blindness and, in extreme circumstances, persistent or permanent visual impairment.”

Causing a distraction or impairing a pilot’s vision “could reasonably be construed” as interfering with a crewmember’s duties, therefore the agency is considering laser attacks “a violation of 91.11,” punishable with fines up to $11,000 per incident.

Reports of lasers being used against aircraft have grown in recent years, with upwards of 1,100 incidents in the U.S. through late May 2011 and a total of 2,836 during 2010, nearly doubling from 1,527 in 2009. Those numbers are in sharp contrast to less than 300 reports generated in 2005, when FAA created a formal reporting system for laser incidents.

FAA attributes the increase to a number of factors, including increased awareness among pilots in reporting incidents; the availability of inexpensive lasers through the web; stronger power levels that allow lasers to hit aircraft at higher altitudes; and the introduction of green lasers in addition to red lasers.

An informal poll posted on Rotor & Wing’s Facebook page on Monday asked what deterrent effect FAA’s action would have on the upward trend in incidents. Around two-thirds of respondents so far (15) indicated they thought it would have no change, with eight checking the box for “slight decrease” and one for “sharp decrease.” Of the 25 total votes through Wednesday morning, no one has voted for “slight increase” or “sharp increase.”

Michael Franz, an FAA Safety Team representative who was the subject of an April 2010 Rotor & Wing feature, "Man on a Mission," says that laser incidents could be decreased through education and awareness programs. He posted a comment on the Facebook page shortly after Monday’s poll question.

“Many incidents are by kids and teens fooling around and surely these young people do not need to be criminalized, but they do need to made aware and educated about the dangers to pilots,” Franz wrote, adding: “Intentional adult users of lasers on aircraft should be prosecuted!”


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