FAA, FBI Step Up Laser Incident Enforcement

Warn the neighbors and anybody else who will listen: The FAA and FBI are cracking down on people who intentionally point laser lights at aircraft in flight, launching dozens of investigations and charging nearly 30 alleged perpetrators since stepping up enforcement last summer. A new law enacted in February makes doing so a federal crime punishable by up to five years in prison.

The FAA said on Wednesday that the number of laser incidents nationwide rose from 2,836 in 2010 to 3,592 last year – as a result, FAA investigators and attorneys are now being told that warning notices and counseling are not strong enough punishments.

“Shining a laser at an airplane is not a laughing matter,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “It’s dangerous for both pilots and passengers, and we will not tolerate it.”

The maximum civil penalty for one laser strike is $11,000, but the FAA is levying fines against some individuals for multiple laser incidents, with $30,800 being the highest penalty proposed to date. The FAA wants “moderately high” civil penalties for inadvertent violations, and maximum penalties for deliberate violations. If a pilot or mechanic shines a laser light at an aircraft in flight, the FAA will likely yank the perp’s certificate, the agency warned.

The newest handheld lasers sold on the Internet are quite powerful (far more so than the simple laser pointers you can buy for a few dollars at your local Walgreen’s) and can cause permanent physiological eye damage, particularly to the retina. That’s why the U.S. enacted a new law on February 14 making it a crime to shine a laser at an aircraft in flight. People convicted of shining lasers at airplanes now face up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines.

And yet laser incidents continue to occur on a record pace. Just this past March, after the new law was enacted, a Florida man was arrested for shining lasers at airliners two dozen times as they took off from Orlando International Airport. He admitted to the crimes, but said he shined the lasers at the airplanes because he suffers from severe anxiety brought on by jet noise. The irony, of course, is that this man now may get plenty of peace and quiet inside a prison cell.

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