The Government Accountability Office (GAO) says more action should be taken to prevent and address the federal crime of intentionally aiming lasers at aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reported 9,723 laser incidents in 2021, up from 6,852 in 2020. This is the highest reported number of incidents ever. Pointing a laser at an aircraft is a federal crime and a serious threat to aviation safety. The FAA considers each “illumination” of aircraft by lasers to be an in-flight emergency. Adverse effects of lasers include pain and visual effects, which can be especially debilitating when the eyes are adapted to the low-light level of a cockpit at night. Laser incidents can be especially dangerous during critical phases of flight, such as on approach to landing or departure, when sudden exposure to lasers can distract or disorient a pilot and cause temporary visual impairment. The FAA has also identified helicopters (including police, air ambulance, military, and news media aircraft) that routinely operate at low altitudes as particularly vulnerable to hazardous laser strikes due to their proximity to laser sources. In February 2022, the FAA stated pilots have reported 244 injuries attributed to lasers since it began recording data on laser incidents in 2010.
The FAA works with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to pursue civil and criminal penalties against people who purposely aim a laser at an aircraft. The agency takes enforcement action against people who violate Federal Aviation Regulations by shining lasers at aircraft and can impose civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation. The FAA has imposed civil penalties up to $30,800 against people for multiple laser incidents.
But given 2021’s unprecedented number of incidents as well as the fact that more than 5,000 reports of laser pointing have been made to the FAA already this year, GAO’s report could help the FAA better address this threat that can incapacitate pilots flying aircraft that may be carrying hundreds of passengers.
The nature of laser incidents means that the FAA and federal law enforcement face difficulties identifying those involved. However, they have taken some enforcement actions, resulting in costly penalties and sentences of up to 51 months, according to GAO analysis.
GAO’s report notes that the FAA, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Food and Drug Administration, which has regulatory authority over lasers, each conduct outreach to educate the public about laser incidents. These agencies were involved in an interagency group to address laser safety concerns until 2015 when the group dissolved. Since then, laser incidents have increased and identifying subjects remains difficult. GAO believes that the FAA is well positioned to lead an interagency effort to explore re-establishing this group, given FAA’s responsibility for the safety of the national airspace.
To support incident investigations, the FAA asks that pilots complete an incident questionnaire upon landing. However, GAO found that the FAA received responses for only about 12 percent of the 8,221 laser incidents that occurred over a recent one-year period from 2020 to 2021. Reasons identified by the FAA and others for the low response rate include the length of the questionnaire and its voluntary nature. Further, GAO found that the FAA does not consistently share collected information with law enforcement.
Selected local law enforcement entities that GAO spoke with said information the FAA requests in the questionnaire, such as the approximate location of the laser and whether the laser beam appeared to deliberately track the aircraft, would be helpful to their investigations. One local law enforcement official told GAO that planes landing at Los Angeles International Airport approach from the east and fly over several policing jurisdictions before landing. The official added that a summary of the information requested in the questionnaire would be helpful in establishing the elements of the crime for a successful prosecution. Additionally, a representative of an organization representing airport law enforcement agencies said that any additional information the FAA could provide on laser incidents would be helpful for investigating repeat incidents. The representative also recommended that the FAA forward any information gathered via the questionnaire to the investigating police agency.
In 2016, Congress required the FAA to report quarterly on laser incidents, including data on civil and criminal actions. However, GAO found FAA’s reports to be incomplete. For example, GAO’s analysis shows 44 prosecutions from July 2016 through September 2020, when the FAA reported only four. FAA officials told the government watchdog that they do not routinely request data on the status of actions from other agencies and face challenges, such as access to this data.
Most stakeholders GAO spoke with said that laser eye protection and pilot training are the most common ways to mitigate laser incidents. However, some stakeholders cautioned that cost and pilot adoption pose challenges to widespread use of eye protection technologies. Several stakeholders told GAO that pilots may choose not to use laser eyewear protection for reasons including the potential effect on color perception and possible interference in flying their aircraft. One law enforcement helicopter pilot told GAO that the biggest downside to wearing protective eyewear is losing depth perception when it comes to power lines and said that many of the hazards helicopter pilots deal with in low-level flying become difficult to identify.
In addition to eyewear, GAO found that aircraft manufacturers are working with other industry stakeholders to develop a windshield film to mitigate laser strikes in a way similar to the glasses. The FAA currently has no applications or projects for windshield film certification.
Most stakeholders told the watchdog that training pilots on how to respond to laser incidents is an important mitigation strategy. The Air Line Pilots Association created a webpage on responding to laser incidents that lists recommended actions in the event an aircraft is lased. Such actions include turning up instrumentation and panel background lighting and transferring control of the aircraft to another pilot if necessary.
GAO’s report makes three recommendations with which the Department of Transportation, the parent agency of the FAA, agrees. First, that the FAA should determine what information from pilots and crewmembers would be most useful for investigating laser incidents, and how best to collect the information and to share it with law enforcement. Second, improve the FAA’s quarterly reports to Congress on laser incidents by routinely seeking information from other agencies on related federal investigation and enforcement actions and disclosing, in those reports, any limitations with the data. Finally, GAO said the FAA should explore reestablishing an interagency working group on outreach to educate the public on the hazards of lasers and the illegality of aiming lasers at aircraft.