Concerns grow as laser beam strikes aimed at airplanes rise — especially in LA

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This Thanksgiving travel season, air travelers can expect long security lines and delays. But pilots and aviation officials have a separate set of concerns — including lasers beamed at planes in the skies.

Piercing light from laser pointers poses serious risks to pilots and crews, who can be temporarily blinded by the strikes. Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the dangers are especially acute during take off and landing.

In some cases, pilots have been forced to hand over the controls of a plane, or abandon a landing until their vision clears and they can approach the airport again. 

Hundred of "laser strikes" have been reported to the FAA in Los Angeles since 2010, making it a national hotspot, and the number of incidents rose sharply last year. In one recent case, a pilot reported he was temporarily blinded from a laser beam while landing at LAX in 2014.

"The FAA takes laser strikes very seriously," Gregor told KPCC. He said once air control officials are notified of an incident, they immediately contact local law enforcement.

Laser strikes aren't just on the FAA's radar — they're also on the FBI's. The bureau offers up to $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of anyone pointing lasers at planes. It's been a federal felony since 2012, punishable by five years in jail.

 

Reports of laser strikes by pilots are increasing both locally and nationally. Last year, the FAA data logged 7,437 strikes. That number was up from just under 4,000 in the previous year.

Los Angeles sees a high number of strikes due in part to geography.

"Aircraft arriving at LAX pass over densely populated areas for miles and miles, which means they are exposed for that period of time to laser strikes," Gregor said. He thinks the region's climate also means people are outside more frequently than in other parts of the country.

Los Angeles recorded 246 strikes in 2015. Only Phoenix saw more, with 263. Houston was the other city with more than 200. San Diego ranked number eight on the list, with 145 incidents. New York City didn't make the top 10. 

The agency hasn't yet broken down its 2016 data by city.

"Part of the reason you're seeing an increase year-to-year is that the power of these [laser pointers] has gone way up, the price has come way down, and the availability has gone up as well," Gregor said. Laser strikes have been reported in planes at elevations of over 10,000 feet. 

Sightings of green lasers in the skies are especially common, according to the FAA data. Well over 90 percent of reports cite green lasers, although pilots have also spotted blue, red, white and even purple beams.

While lasers beaming into planes are a serious concern, Gregor said no planes have crashed due to laser pointers. Hundreds of planes fly out of Southern California daily so even a few hundred yearly laser strikes affects only a tiny share of the region's air travel.

And for all its headaches, commercial air travel remains one of the safest ways to get around.

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