Morons With Laser Pointers Near Record for Airplane Harassment

Photograph by Knulp/Getty Images

Airline travel was troublesome enough before legions of jerks with laser pointers decided to start zapping the pilots.

The number of incidents in which lasers have been pointed at cockpits has soared since 2005, when the Federal Aviation Administration recorded 300 cases. By 2011 incidents peaked at nearly 3,600 cases, and so far this year laser-wielding miscreants are on pace to set a new record: Through the first nine months of 2013, there have already been 3,188 reported incidents.

Lasers powerful enough to distract a flight crew are cheap and easy to buy. The incidents occur mostly on airport approaches or takeoffs and have at times forced temporarily blinded pilots to abort a landing or relinquish control to a co-pilot. The FAA has instructed pilots to report laser incidents immediately to air traffic controllers, who contact law enforcement. Federal authorities can assess civil penalties of as much as $11,000 against anyone caught shining lasers at aircraft; last year, there were 95 such penalties.

“Let’s face it: The level of idiocy and wanton disregard for the safety of the flight crew and the flying public should be met with sanctions on the level of the risk posed to those on the plane and potentially those on the ground,” former Representative Dan Lungren, of California, said at a 2011 safety conference on lasers sponsored by the Air Line Pilots Association. The following year saw shining a laser at an airplane changed to a federal offense.

A federal grand jury earlier this month indicted a Portland (Ore.) security guard (PDF) on charges of pointing a laser at United and JetBlue Airways flights approaching the Portland airport. The defendant, Stephen Bukucs, has pleaded not guilty. Bukucs’s attorney, Mark Cogan, said it was premature to comment on the case.

Bukucs told investigators he had targeted about 25 flights previously “for the kicks of it, the thrill and excitement of it, because he would go in and listen to the police scanner,” says Stephen Peifer, the federal prosecutor handling the case. “We’ve been lucky that no planes have gone down as a result of this, but the danger is always there.” Criminal conviction for the felony carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

There were also two reported incidents this month involving planes at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

The laser-pointing type appears to prefer weekends for plane targeting. An FAA report covering five years’ worth of laser strikes found that Sunday was the most common day of the week, followed closely by Friday and Saturday. Most of the incidents, 70 percent, occurred between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m., according to the 2011 analysis by the FAA’s Office of Aerospace Medicine. “Both weather conditions and daylight-savings time may play important roles in determining an opportune time frame for laser activity in a particular locale,” the researchers wrote. “Knowledge of these findings may assist the aviation community and law enforcement officials in allocating their limited resources to increase the likelihood of apprehending those responsible for these criminal acts.”

A website for laser-pointer enthusiasts estimates that airplane-related incidents could top 4,000 this year. The site urges fans not to “annoy” anyone with their lasers and warns that a rise of incidents could ultimately lead to bans. Another danger for laser enthusiasts, as outlined by the site: “You may get shot.”

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