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FAA: Laser Incidents Soar, Threaten Planes

WASHINGTON (WJZ/AP) -- More than 100 incidents occurred at Los Angeles International Airport last year in which the safety of planes was put at risk by people pointing at them with lasers, and nearly as many incidents at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, federal officials said.

Kai Jackson reports it's a crime that could land offenders with some serious jail time.

Pilots say they have a number of lives in their hands when they fly. Experts and authorities say those lives are at risk when people point lasers inside of cockpits.

When you fly you have a reasonable expectation of safety in the air, but laser pointers are rapidly making pilots and passengers nervous. FAA and law enforcement are warning people about the growing danger.

"This is a phenomenon that has been occurring more rapidly throughout the country, mostly on the West Coast," said Lt. Walter Kerr, Maryland State Police pilot.

Kerr is with the Aviation Command of the Maryland State Police Medevac fleet. He says last summer someone pointed a laser inside the cockpit of a chopper.

"It's similar to when you ride down the road in the middle of the night and someone flashes their high beams on you. What occurs is their eyes are focused on their night vision and then this rapid light comes into the cockpit, lighting the cockpit up," said Kerr.

Kerr says the disorientation, even if it's brief, can be catastrophic. Pilots can be temporarily blinded by the laser, impeding their ability to fly the aircraft.

"This isn't funny. This is something that can put our crews at risk and have catastrophic or fatal results," said Kerr.

"We know it's a hazard, something that people shouldn't do, never point a laser pointer at the sky, at a person or an airplane," said one expert.

Maryland State Police say in the case of the person who pointed that laser last year, police found the person, arrested them and educated them on the dangerous. 

Police say the cost of laser pointers is inexpensive, so anyone can buy them.

Overall, the number of incidents nationally in which people pointed lasers at planes and helicopters nearly doubled last year, from 1,527 incidents in 2009 to 2,836 incidents in 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Many of the incidents involve airliners that were in the midst of takeoffs or landings, critical phases of flight when pilots need to be at their most alert. Pointing lasers at cockpits can temporarily blind pilots or even permanently damage their eyesight.

In some instances, pilots have had to relinquish control of their aircraft to another pilot.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the laser incidents "an unacceptable risk to passenger safety."

FAA began keeping track of the incidents about five years ago, as Internet sales of new, more powerful handheld lasers began to increase. There were about 300 incidents reported in 2005.

The lasers are many times more powerful than the laser pointers typically used by lecturers. Stargazers use them at night to point to celestial objects. The introduction of green lasers, which are more powerful and more easily seen than red lasers, has also fueled sales.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt urged pilots to immediately report laser incidents to air traffic controllers, who can then report the incidents to police. He said some cities and states have laws making it illegal to shine lasers at aircraft and, in many cases, people can also face federal charges.

There 108 incidents at the Los Angeles airport last year, more than any other airport, FAA said. O'Hare was next, with 98, followed by airports in Phoenix and San Jose, Calif., both with 80; Las Vegas, 72; Philadelphia, 66; Oakland, Calif., 55; Honolulu, 47;

San Francisco, 39; Denver and Newark, N.J., both 38; Tucson, Ariz., 37; Miami and Salt Lake City, both 36; Portland, Ore., and Ontario, Calif., both 32; Burbank, Calif., Orange County, Calif., and Baltimore, each 31, and Seattle, 26.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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