U.S. regulators will start pursuing maximum fines against people caught shining laser pointers at aircraft after incidents last year climbed to record levels, the Federal Aviation Administration said.
Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta issued the directive today after laser incidents rose to 3,592 in 2011, from 2,836 in 2010 and more than double the 1,527 cases in 2009, according to agency data.
Lasers pointed at an aircraft’s cockpit can temporarily diminish eyesight or blind pilots in planes near the ground, according to FAA research. Some industrial lasers are capable of damaging the eye, the FAA said.
“Shining a laser at an airplane is not a laughing matter,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “It’s dangerous for both pilots and passengers, and we will not tolerate it.”
The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents about 53,000 pilots at 37 North American carriers, applauded the FAA action, Sean Cassidy, the union’s first vice president, said in a phone interview.
“When you look at the increase in these incidents, something has to be done before we’re having a very different conversation,” Cassidy said.
In addition to harming vision, a laser strike can distract pilots during takeoff and descent, he said.
A Florida man pleaded guilty today to repeatedly pointing a green laser at planes shortly after they lifted off from Orlando International Airport, according to an e-mail release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Middle District of Florida.
Glenn Stephen Hansen, 49, admitted to U.S. investigators that he had aimed the beam at aircraft at least 23 times from January through March 23, the office said in the release. Hansen said he targeted the aircraft because he suffered severe anxiety from jet noise, according to court records provided by the office.
Sentencing will be held at a later date, William Daniels, a spokesman for the office, said in an e-mail.
In one unidentified flight, a pilot was removed from duty for medical examinations because of temporary vision issues, according to the records.
On the evening of March 15, Hansen pointed a laser at an AirTran Airways flight leaving the airport. The pilot told investigators a green light illuminated the cockpit, according to the records. AirTran is a unit of Southwest Airlines Co.
The pilot turned off the jet’s lights and watched as the laser beam moved to another plane leaving the airport, the government charged.
Under a U.S. law enacted Feb. 14, people convicted of shining lasers at planes face as much as five years in jail and $250,000 in fines.
The FAA issued a legal opinion last June that shining a laser at an aircraft constituted interfering with a flight crew, which is punishable by civil fines as much as $11,000.
The highest fine proposed by the agency so far was $30,800 in a case involving multiple incidents, according to the agency’s statement.
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport had the most reported laser incidents last year with 130, Laura Brown, a spokeswoman for the FAA, said in a telephone interview.
Philadelphia International Airport was second with 110, Brown said. Airports in Houston had 79 reports, she said.