Laser Strikes Directed Towards Airliners Increase at Alarming Rate

JFK Airport Laser Attack
Laser strikes are an imminent threat to the flying public.

While the FBI has issued a nation-wide alert for domestic terrorists who ostensibly are trying to take control of the government, and by politicians who have stationed 1,500 National Guard troops in DC ; without an incident in a month since the capital incursion; the real, not imagined, danger, seems to be a story for the back-pages, and only appears in a government agency Press Release. The real problem is real people doing real things to down one of our commercial airliners with hundreds of people aboard. 

There are three kinds of laser light events; 

  1. Distraction and Startle: an unexpected laser or bright light could distract the pilot during a nighttime landing or takeoff. A pilot might not know what was happening at first. They may be worried that a brighter light or other threat would be coming.
  2. Glare and Disruption: as the light brightness increases, it starts to interfere with vision. Veiling glare would make it difficult to see out the windscreen. Night vision starts to deteriorate. Laser light is highly directional, so pilots may act to exclude the source from their direct field of vision. Pointer lasers have an illuminance of about 1 lumen/m2, whereas during the day the pilots have to deal with sunlight which is one hundred thousand times stronger.
  3. Temporary Flash Blindness works exactly like a bright camera flash: there is no injury, but night vision is temporarily disrupted. There may be afterimages, like a bright camera flash leaving temporary spots.

On March 8th, the FAA issued a bulletin alerting the industry that Laser strikes against pilots increased in 2020 even with the overall decrease in air traffic operations. In 2020, pilots reported 6,852 laser strikes to the FAA. This is an increase from 6,136 laser strikes reported in 2019 and is the highest number reported to the agency since 2016.

The danger of using laser as a weapon is its operating range, and the difficulty in identifying the criminal, the tools used, and the sight-lines where potential events can take place. It is a new kind of crime and it will take to prepare a template of corrective actions.  

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is doing its part of the job admirably and has remained vigilant in raising awareness about misuse of lasers when they are pointed towards aircraft. Intentionally aiming lasers at an aircraft poses a safety threat to those flying the aircraft, and obviously endangering the passengers as well. The criminal activity   violates federal statute U.S.C. TITLE 18, CHAPTER 2 Sec. 39A.

The FAA continues to work closely with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to pursue civil and criminal penalties against people who purposely aim a laser at an aircraft. The agency takes enforcement action against people who violate Federal Aviation Regulations by shining lasers at aircraft and can impose civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation. The FAA has imposed civil penalties up to $30,800 against people for multiple laser incidents.

If a pilot is blinded or otherwise incapacitated, his plane can end up on the ground. In the view of many, this is not the equivalents of an automobile “moving violation” with a fine attached. This is an act that endangers the lives of hundreds of people, and the sentence should be equal to the crime.

Mr. Alba was previously Editor of the Airport Press for 12 years covering both local as well as global aviation news. Prior to this, Mr. Alba had Executive positions in Systems Engineering and Marketing with IBM World Trade, and had foreign assignments in the Far East and Latin America earning three Outstanding Achievement Awards. Mr. Alba also directed a new function dealing with Alternate Fuels for Public Service Electric & Gas company in New Jersey and founded a Natural Gas Vehicle Consortium consisting of car company executives and fleet owners, and NGV suppliers in New Jersey. Mr. Alba was a founding partner of ATA, an IT Consulting company which is still active in Central and South America. After leaving the armed forces, Mr. Alba’s initial employee was the U.S. Defense Department as an analyst.

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