Report: FAA needs to better address increase in lasers targeting airplanes

WASHINGTON — It’s a dangerous federal crime putting pilots and passengers at risk: pointing lasers at airplanes.

A new watchdog report reveals there was a record number of reported incidents involving lasers targeting aircrafts last year, with 9,723 reported cases in 2021.

That’s up 42% from the year before, according to data from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

“It’s serious enough that FAA considers each laser incident to be an in-flight emergency because there is a potential for accidents and also the effect it has on pilots, particularly their vision,” said Heather Krause, a Director in the Physical Infrastructure Team at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The GAO report calls on the FAA to improve how it collects and shares information about laser incidents.

Currently, the FAA asks pilots to fill out a questionnaire after each laser incident but it’s voluntary and lengthy.

The report said FAA received responses for only 12% of incidents in one year.

It also calls for FAA to improve how it shares information about incidents with law enforcement and to provide more complete information on laser incidents in its reports to Congress.

The FAA agreed with the recommendations, according to the report.

It’s all part of an effort to crack down on the criminals who are often hard to catch.

“It can be very difficult to identify subjects when it comes to laser incidents,” said Krause. “These lasers can travel long distances so that can result in a wide search area.”

The GAO said its investigation found several possible reasons for the rise in laser incidents.

“We spoke to some FAA officials and stakeholders, and they gave a variety of reasons that might be contributing to that,” said Krause. “The availability of cheap lasers. The abundance of lasers as you can purchase them online and in stores and also overpowered lasers. So, lasers that have been adjusted to have a much higher impact and can reach aircraft and can cause incidents for them.”

The report said laser incidents can lead to “penalties ranging from $50 to $27,388 and sentences of up to 51 months.”