NUMBER OF LASER ATTACKS ON PLANES INCREASING

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According to the FBI, the number of laser attacks on airplanes is projected to reach 3,700 by the end of the year, compared to 383 in 2005, a rise of more than 1,100%. In 2011 there were 3,592 reported laser incidents.
Inexpensive handheld laser pointers can be easily purchased on-line and can vary in intensity. The FAA, ALPA and other organizations are concerned about the “visual effects”: the brightness of the laser pointer distracting, causing glare, or possibly even temporarily flash blinding pilots. They are also concerned about accidental or deliberate exposure from stronger lasers.

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Those who intentionally aim a laser at an aircraft can be prosecuted under two federal statutes, including a law put into effect this year that makes it punishable by up to five years in prison and $11,000 per violation without the benefit of a warning notice or counseling. An existing law allows punishment up to 20 years in prison and fines of $250,000.

If a laser event is assessed as a safety issue and a Safety Management System (SMS) model is used, then we can see from the sample Risk Matrix it would likely be categorized with a “Likelihood” of Probable and a Severity of Major or Hazardous.

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Completing a Risk Assessment allows you to categorize each risk as acceptable, acceptable with with mitigation or unacceptable. In the case of laser attacks on airplanes there is probably a wide consensus that it is unacceptable. Therefore, risk or hazard controls must be put in place to protect the flight crew (people), property and/or the environment to reduce the probability and severity of the potential consequences associated with laser attacks.
Hazard controls, in order of precedence include

1. Design the hazard out
2. Prevent the risk from occurring
3. Implement a Warning or alert signal
4. Procedural and training change
5. Education

The first 2 hazard controls which may be feasible are not practical or, for that matter, timely or cost effective as it would require a modification to the cockpit or the use of laser protection eye wear which creates other potential issues for flight crews. By virtue of the two federal statutes a “Warning” has been issued and credit should go to the Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) for providing pilot information and training. Pilots can handle laser and bright light illuminations if they know a few basic guidelines. Also, work is underway to provide training materials, and to introduce lasers into simulator training. Studies have shown that after as few as three simulator exposures, pilots can fully “recognize and recover” from a laser incident.

The Federal Aviation Administration does not regulate lasers. It has issued an order (7400.2E, ch. 29) covering the use and location of outdoor laser operations. People who want to use lasers outdoors can fill out FAA forms in Advisory Circular 70-1 [caution: a 2.2 MB download]. The forms describe the laser powers, and how the user will prevent pilots from being illuminated by powers above FAA-required levels.

The most cost effective control is public education. While recent arrests of individuals receiving steep fines and prison terms have gotten public attention, the perception is that more public attention on this issue needs to be made. One suggestion is for the FAA, NTSB, FBI and industry organizations like A4A, ATA, HAI, AOPA, NACA, AIA, ALPA, APA and other organizations to collaborate and implement an aggressive public service campaign to educate the public about the dangers associated with lasers and encourage everyone to report laser incidents and help prevent future events from taking place.

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