Lasers in the Spotlight

ALPA's national aviation security team was busy recently responding to a number of incidents in which lasers illuminated airliner cockpits.

Pilots know that lasers aren't a new threat to aviation safety. An accidental cockpit laser incident during a Las Vegas casino laser light show in October 1995 added impetus to ALPA's efforts on lasers, which began in the early 1990s. Hundreds of incidents have occurred since then, including recent events in Colorado Springs, Cleveland and New Jersey. Federal authorities recently charged a Parsippany, N.J. man with interfering with a mass transportation vehicle for shining a laser at a private plane and blinding two pilots during their approach to Teterboro Airport. It's clear that lasers continue to be a serious safety concern for pilots.

Since the 1990s, ALPA's safety experts have helped develop laser operating standards. The Association's aeromedical professionals have researched the medical issues surrounding lasers and worked with the US Air Force to develop treatment plans for pilots who have been injured.

"Given ALPA's in-depth knowledge and experience with the issue, we want to be absolutely clear that flying remains extremely safe," said ALPA First Vice President Captain Dennis Dolan. "While there have been a number of recent incidents, there are two fully qualified pilots in every airline cockpit and it is highly unlikely that both pilots could be incapacitated at the same time."

Moreover, the public has a critical role in keeping pilotsand ultimately passengers and cargosafe from lasers. It is illegal to direct a laser at an aircraft, and the public has a responsibility to respect the law. Jokes and pranks have no place in a serious safety issue such as lasers in the cockpit.

"While there's no doubt that these incidents are an aviation safety issue, it's not clear that they are a security threat," said Captain Steve Luckey, ALPA's National Security Chairman. "We simply don't know if these events are terrorist-related. According to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mineta, there is no credible evidence of a terrorist group using lasers in the U.S. Law enforcement agencies are investigating the laser incidents and should eventually identify the motivations behind them."

If it does become clear that lasers in the cockpit are a security threat, government and industry must evaluate it in the context of a range of security threats facing aviation. ALPA maintains that the best defense against any security attack is prevention. Countermeasures such as gathering intelligence, surveillance of known terrorist groups and non-proliferation can prevent incidents and are the best place for resources to be spent.

And if lasers do emerge as a security issue, there's no question that pilots must be involved as the federal government responds. These incidents also underscore the urgent need for a national aviation security incident data collection and alert system for pilots, something for which ALPA has strongly advocated.

In the past weeks, ALPA's national security team has reached out to a broad range of print and broadcast media to promote pilots' views. ALPA's spokespersons have appeared in outlets including CNN, ABC World News Tonight, USA Today, the Associated Press, the Washington Times, The Christian Science Monitor, and the Boston Globe.

ALPA will continue to track and participate in this issue as it evolves. Watch for more information in Air Line Pilot and other union publications. An upcoming issue of Air Line Pilot magazine will feature an article by Capt. Bill Connor, Ph.D. (Delta, Ret.), a laser expert who will describe the real threat and make recommendations on how pilots should handle it.