Airliners are being attacked more than ever by idiots with hand-held laser pointers who direct them into cockpits, distracting and endangering pilots as they land or take off. The number of such reports has skyrocketed in the past year, according to federal officials, but a technological solution to the problem remains elusive.
While laser pointers have been around for more than a decade, the threat to aircraft of laser targeting with small but increasingly powerful devices has achieved epidemic proportions within the last year, reported Aviation Week.
In 2015, there were more than 6,600 incidents reported to the Federal Aviation Administration. The previous high was just over 3,900 incidents in 2014.
The worst areas for laser pointer attacks were Los Angeles, followed by Phoenix, Houston, Chicago and Las Vegas. At least 7 of 10 attacks occur between between 7:00 and 11:00 p.m.
In Europe, the problem has affected 24 different countries, and in 2014, laser "interference" strikes occurred at 57 locations, affecting 37 different air carriers, the magazine reported.
The power of the lasers in laser pointers has increased, FAA officials said, making them more of a big safety risk. Part of the problem is that a tiny laser beam -- green, blue or red, may seem harmless when used inside. But the width of the beam increases as it travels from the source.
That means that by the time it reaches the aircraft, it can flood the entire cockpit with distracting light. Some pilots have been treated for eye injuries, according to Tammy Jones, an FAA spokeswoman.
"Lasers can distract or temporarily blind pilots and could compromise the safety of passengers," Jones said. "It is a federal crime to shine a laser at an aircraft and violators may be subject to fines and time in jail. In addition to violating federal criminal law, shining a laser at an aircraft may result in FAA civil penalties of $11,000 or more. We investigate each incident and work closely with law enforcement to locate violators."
Johnson said the agency has looked at possible solutions to block the light, but the problem is that the same red, blue and green laser lights are also used to light obstacles such as towers and bridges, other aircraft and airports.
"There are some potential issues there," Jones said.
R. John Hansman, director of the International Center for Air Transportation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said the military is working on special in-flight goggles that would allow a pilot to fly an airplane without looking through the window. That is one possibility, but it hasn't made it to the commercial industry yet.
Special shades or electronic tinting devices might also work, he said. Until then, the only protection is looking the other way.
"That's why there's a co-pilot," Hansman said. "Hopefully both pilots are not looking the same way."