Lasers Are a Serious Threat to Aviation Safety

In recent years, laser pointers have become commonplace. Easily purchased in person or online from an office supply store to a big box pet store, they help pinpoint key elements of a presentation or facilitate an entertaining way to interact with pets. However, high-powered laser pointers also pose a serious hazard to airline pilots, the passengers and cargo that sit behind the pilots, and the millions of people whose communities that are beneath an aircraft’s flightpath. 

In 2020, the United States saw the most documented reports of lasers striking an aircraft in the air totaling more than 6,800 reports - 12% increase over 2019 and 21% increase over 2018. As of March 6, 2021, well over 1,300 incidents have been reported to the FAA, and if the rate doesn’t decrease, the U.S. could see more than 7,500 incidents this year.

Is this a big deal? As the largest non-governmental safety organization, the Air Line Pilots Association, says yes, it is! And here’s why: even though shining a laser on an aircraft may seem small and faint from the ground, it’s very different in the air.Airline pilots will be the first to tell you that operating in low-light conditions for maximum visibility at night, manifests as a blinding light to those flying an aircraft. Literally, the effect can cause temporary or permanent blindness in pilots.  And given the closer proximity to the ground during the most critical moments in a flight—takeoff and landing—the safety impact of a laser strike is very high. 

The FBI also thinks this is a big deal. Pointing a laser at an aircraft in operation is a Federal crime punishable by a fine of up to $11,000 for each violation. This is in addition to any local or state laws that are also in place. The FAA works closely with local, state, and federal law enforcement to pursue any criminal or civil penalties.

Here are some other aspects to consider: accidental laser strikes are just as dangerous. Lasers that are part of a decoration or a light show have struck aircraft in operation, which is why it is important to make sure any lasers used in decorations, especially during the holiday season, are not pointed towards the sky.

Learn more about laser safety and how it affects commercial airline operations

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