Growing Laser Threat Accelerates U.S. Response

 - October 28, 2011, 7:10 AM
ExpressJet Airlines pilots Henry Cisneros, left, and Drew Wilkens describe a laser incident they experienced in January 2010 on approach to Houston Intercontinental Airport. (Photo: Bill Carey)

The growing threat posed to airline and general aviation pilots by laser pointing devices has accelerated efforts to address the problem through regulation and criminal prosecution. U.S. government officials described those efforts during a conference on the issue sponsored by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and Air Transport Association in Washington, D.C., on October 27.

Lasers can distract or temporarily blind pilots during critical takeoff and landing maneuvers, and at least two incidents last year resulted in significant eye injuries to pilots, ALPA said.

So far this year the FAA records show 2,795 incidents of lasers pointed both at aircraft and ATC towers from the ground. Given an average of 66 incidents per week, this year’s rate exceeds that of last year, when the FAA recorded reports of 2,836 incidents, 1,700 involving airlines, according to ALPA. The numbers have risen steadily from 300 incidents in 2005, when the FAA created a formal reporting system.

The problem is international. Eurocontrol says its voluntary incident reporting system received just eight reports in 2008, rising to 500 in 2010. Laser incidents in the UK have proliferated from 30 in 2007 to 1,600 as of September.

At the Washington conference, ExpressJet Airlines first officer Drew Wilkens described a laser strike he and Capt. Henry Cisneros experienced in January 2010, as they prepared to land an Embraer ERJ 145 operating as Continental Express into Houston Intercontinental Airport at about 8 p.m. “It was a typical approach; nothing seemed out of the ordinary,” said Wilkens, the pilot flying. “All of a sudden, [there was] a bright green flash off the right side of the airplane. I was immediately startled. … The laser lit up the whole flight deck. Our ability to see well at night was pretty much gone.”

Authorities have applied local, state and federal laws to charge people found pointing lasers at aircraft. Separate bills passed the U.S. House and Senate this year that would make laser pointing a specific federal crime. However, the FAA reauthorization process has stalled their reconciliation.

The FAA announced in June that it would impose civil penalties of up to $11,000 based on its interpretation of 14 CFR Part 91.11, the regulation prohibiting interference of crewmembers operating an aircraft. There are 18 civil cases in progress.