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Lasers are a growing flight safety problem

By Marnie Hunter, CNN
More than 2,000 incidents of lasers being pointed at planes have been reported this year.
More than 2,000 incidents of lasers being pointed at planes have been reported this year.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • FAA administrator urges public to report people who shine lasers at planes
  • Pilots can be temporarily blinded and forced to rely on co-pilots to control aircraft
  • More than 2,000 incidents have been reported in 2010; in 2005, less than 300 reported
  • Interfering with a flight crew is a federal crime

(CNN) -- A spike in the incidence of people pointing lasers into the cockpits of planes has the Federal Aviation Administration worried and encouraging public vigilance.

"It sounds silly, but this is a serious problem," wrote FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt on Wednesday in a Department of Transportation blog post highlighting the agency's concerns.

"Why is this dangerous? Lasers can distract pilots or temporarily blind a pilot while he or she is taking off or landing an aircraft," Babbitt said.

This year, 2,200 instances have been reported nationwide. In 2005, there were 283 reports of people pointing lasers at planes.

New Jersey airports recently reported a cluster of laser events. Over three days at the end of November, the FAA received reports of 12 laser incidents at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey and two at nearby Teterboro Airport, according to regional FAA spokeswoman Arlene Salac.

Series of reports like this are not unusual, said national FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown. It often means that someone in the area has recently acquired a laser and is responsible for multiple incidents.

The agency first noticed an increase in laser events around 2004 and created a reporting system in 2005. The FAA attributes the huge uptick since then to wider access to more powerful and more affordable lasers.

In some cases, pilots have been forced to temporarily give control to co-pilots or abort landings. Lasers have not caused any aviation accidents.

"We're glad that we haven't seen any accidents, but we're concerned about the dangers of these devices. They are marketed as being powerful enough to set things on fire across the room and they are increasingly powerful," Brown said.

Pilots are instructed to report laser incidents to air traffic controllers so law enforcement authorities can be alerted.

"We're trying to encourage pilots to report them, of course, but we're also trying to make it known to the general public that this is both dangerous and illegal," Brown said.

Interfering with a flight crew is a federal crime. A number of people have been arrested around the country for pointing lasers at planes, Brown said.

A Rhode Island man was indicted in September on two federal counts for shining a laser at a Continental Airlines flight, according to The Providence Journal. The maximum penalty for each charge he faces is 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The FAA urges the public to report instances of people shining lasers at planes to local authorities.