Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta yesterday announced a new reporting system for pilots to notify the government when lasers are aimed at aircraft from the ground, calling a recent increase in the number of such incidents a "serious aviation safety matter."
Since Dec. 23, the Federal Aviation Administration has recorded 31 laser beams pointed at aircraft. Since 1990, 400 incidents have occurred. The agency's research facility found that lasers can distract pilots while they are taking off or landing an aircraft and cause temporarily blindness. In rare cases, lasers can cause permanent eye damage.
Mineta said the FAA would work with law enforcement agencies to ensure that people who endanger aircraft are prosecuted. Under the new procedures, pilots must report laser incidents to the FAA. Air traffic controllers will then warn other aircraft of the danger and advise pilots to avoid the area. So far, the FBI said it has found no evidence of terrorist involvement in the lasers pointed at aircraft in recent weeks.
"Shining lasers at an airplane is not a harmless prank. It is stupid and dangerous," Mineta said in a written statement. "You are putting other people at risk, and law enforcement authorities are going to seek you out, and if they catch you, they are going to prosecute you."
Last week, a New Jersey man was charged in federal court for interfering with an aircraft that was approaching an airport in Teterboro. He pleaded not guilty but police say he admitted that he had aimed the laser at the plane after he initially blamed his young daughter. Transportation officials said they think most lasers pointed at aircraft are operated by careless individuals who may or may not realize the safety hazards.
"There is no evidence at this time terrorist groups are actively planning on using a laser on an aircraft," FBI spokesman Bill Carter said. "It's been discussed [by terrorists.] The fact there is information that has been discussed by terrorist groups is what interests us."
On a visit to the FAA's Oklahoma City research facility, Mineta said he would try to improve labeling on lasers sold to the public to include warnings about the dangers of pointing them at planes.
The Transportation Department said that even simple laser pointers can be a hazard. The Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to parents and school officials in 1997 about the dangers of children aiming laser pointers at their eyes. In recent years, more powerful lasers have become widely available and affordable for uses such as astronomy and light shows. The FDA said it is not considering requiring labels to warn about the dangers of pointing lasers at aircraft.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission said it would "very seriously" look at the issue with the Transportation Department and other agencies.
"The reason this is happening now is because green lasers are becoming more prevalent," said Dean DeHarpporte, president of Onpoint Lasers Inc. of Minneapolis. The company sells the more visible green lasers for $99 on the Internet.
DeHarpporte said he would not oppose additional warnings about aiming lasers at planes, but he is skeptical that laser pointers could really do much damage to one's eyes. His green laser pointers can be visible in the sky for up to two miles, but the beam spreads over an area of 12 feet at that altitude, he said. "If [new labels will] cost me more money, I suppose I'd be against it," he said. "If it keeps people from pointing it at planes, it if saves lives and eye damage, then I'd understand."