Why Your Laser Pointer Could Cost You 11 Grand

Stiff Fines for Shining Laser Pointer at an Airplane

Kids playing with laser pointers
Kids Playing with Laser Light Pointers. James Leynse /.Getty Images

Shining a laser pointer at an airplane could land you in hot water with authorities in some U.S. cities and states, but there is no federal law against intentionally aiming a laser pointer at an aircraft.

Nonetheless, the Federal Aviation Administration said in June 2011 that it would begin cracking down on the use of laser pointers to distract pilots by imposing civil fines as stiff as $11,000.

"Our top priority is protecting the safety of the traveling public.

We will not hesitate to take tough action against anyone who threatens the safety of our passengers, pilots, and air transportation system," Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said.

So how can the government issue penalties for laser pointer use if there's no federal law?

Laser Pointer Use and the Law

The FAA obtained a legal interpretation in June 2011 that found shining a laser pointer into an airplane cockpit "could interfere with a flight crew performing its duties while operating an aircraft, a violation of ​Federal Aviation Regulations."

Specifically, those regulations establish that "no person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crew member in the performance of the crew member's duties aboard an aircraft being operated."

That regulation dates back to 1961 and was adopted in response to an increase of airplane hijackings.

Growing Laser Pointer Threat

The number is laser pointer incidents reported to the FAA has risen steadily since 2005, when the agency started keeping track of information from pilots.

There were 300 such incidents in 2005, 1,527 in 2009 and 2,836 in 2010, according to FAA statistics.

In 2010, the airport reporting the most laser pointer events was Los Angeles International Airport, with 102. There were 201 incidents in the greater Los Angeles area that year.

Chicago O'Hare International Airport reported 98 laser pointer incidents in 2010, and Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport and Norman Y.

Mineta San Jose International Airport both reported 80.

Giving the rising threat to pilots from laser pointers, the FAA decided in 2011 to start issuing substantial fines.

"The FAA is aware of an increasing number of incidents of lasers being pointed at aircraft ..." the legal interpretation states. "Distracting or impairing a crew member's vision during operation of an aircraft could reasonably be construed to constitute interference with a crew member's duties aboard an aircraft."

How a Laser Pointer Causes Problems

A laser pointer, specifically a green laser, is 20 to 30 times brighter than a red laser and can travel for miles. A green laser can temporarily blind pilots and, worse, cause damage to the human eye.

Studies cited by the FAA show that exposure to a green laser will cause retina damage in as little as 60 seconds, while no damage resulted from equally long exposures to a red laser pointer.

"Shining a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft is not a joke. These lasers can temporarily blind a pilot and make it impossible to safely land the aircraft, jeopardizing the safety of the passengers and people on the ground," Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Randy Babbitt said.

New Interpretation on Laser Pointer

The FAA's decision to begin imposing civil penalties on laser pointer use in 2011 marked a shift in policy.

Until then, the agency had enforced its regulation on interfering with crew members on passengers who were physically onboard aircraft. But it had not cracked down on people who interfered with pilots from outside of an airplane, say, by pointed a laser pointer at the cockpit.

The shift in policy, according to the FAA, "reflects the fact that pointing a laser at an aircraft from the ground could seriously impair a pilot's vision and interfere with the flight crew's ability to safely handle its responsibilities."

The maximum civil penalty for violating the FAA's regulation on interfering with a flight crew is $11,000 per violation.

Now a Violation of Federal Law 

On February 14, 2012, President Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, part of which makes it a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at any aircraft.

Now found in the United States Code (U.S.C.) at Title 18, Chapter 2, § 39A, the law stipulates that “Whoever knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, or at the flight path of such an aircraft, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.” The current FAA regulation sets the maximum fine at $11,000 per violation.