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updated 6/1/2011 1:35:35 PM ET 2011-06-01T17:35:35

People who point powerful lasers at planes and helicopters — which can temporarily blind pilots — could face fines as high as $11,000 per violation, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday.

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The FAA is using a new legal interpretation of existing regulations that prohibit interference with the operation of an aircraft to levy the fines, Randy Babbitt, the agency's administrator, said at a news conference.

"It's simple: Point the laser, pay the price," Babbitt said.

Pilots have reported over 1,100 such incidents in the U.S. so far this year, and officials said they are concerned that eventually there will be an air crash.

The incidents have increased rapidly around the world over the past six years as online sales of new, powerful handheld lasers have soared. In 2005, there were fewer than 300 such incidents reported in the U.S. Last year, there were 2,836 incidents. In some cases pilots have had to relinquish control of an aircraft to a co-pilot because of vision loss.

Los Angeles International Airport recorded 102 laser incidents, the most of any airport. Chicago's O'Hare International Airport was next with 98 reports.

The lasers are marketed as tools to point out stars at night. They are many times more powerful than the laser pointers typically used by lecturers.

"People think these things are toys. They are not toys. They can be very dangerous," Babbitt said.

Delta Air Lines Captain Chad Smith, who joined Babbitt at the news conference, said he experienced a laser attack while descending for landing at Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City in March.

Although the MD-80 with 142 passengers on board was still at an altitude of several thousand feet, the intensity of the green light that swept the cockpit several times was so extreme "it was kind of indescribable," Smith said. He said he threw up his hands to shield his eyes and his co-pilot bent her head and hunched over to keep below the cockpit window's glare shield.

Had the plane had been closer to landing, and therefore only a few hundred feet off the ground, or if the autopilot hadn't been on, the consequences could have been disastrous, Smith said.

"It's very striking how intense and keen the beam can be," he said.

The House and Senate have passed separate measures that would make knowingly pointing a laser at an aircraft a federal crime subject to up to five years in prison, but technical and procedural issues remain to be worked out.

Dozens of people have already been arrested under state and local laws. Most were fined, but at least one California man received a prison term.

Federal law already allows charges to be brought against those seeking to destroy an aircraft, but the law requires the government to prove willful intent to endanger a pilot. That can be difficult in the case of laser pointers, where some users may have malicious intent but others may be laser enthusiasts who don't realize the harm that long-range laser beams can cause.

Current law also covers commercial flights, but may not extend to law enforcement helicopters that are particularly vulnerable because they fly at lower altitudes.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Blinded by the light

  1. Closed captioning of: Blinded by the light

    >>> it's a potential threat for anyone that goes on a plane. put yourself in a pilot's position. you're about to land in 80-ton passenger jet when a blinding beam of green light shoots into the cockpit. federal officials say it's happening more than ever. people are buying lasers online and aiming them directly at aircraft. there were more than 2,800 recorded incidents last year, nearly double the number from 2009 . ten times higher than back in 2005 . christine is an aviation writer and author of the blog "flying lessons." we have a small version of this laser here, but what are people doing with them?

    >> well, they are using them to scan the skies or try and do some target practice because laserests are quite enthusiastic about building lasers, enhancing the capability of lasers and then getting, you know, sort of testing to see exactly what the range and what their accuracy on focusing the lasers is. that, you know, that maybe explains some of the behavior.

    >> but some people now are actually aiming them into cockpits.

    >> no, you can't aim a laser into the cockpit. the cockpit is above the laser . you can't, light won't make that curve. you can only hit the bottom. here's the important thing to know about the laser . if you point it or make it --

    >> i want to show -- this is our little demonstration with powder. give you a sense, see the laser there. could you see it through the powder?

    >> see how narrow that is? do you see how narrow that beam is. people out there in tv land say how could that possibly affect a pilot. here's what happens. it's a narrow beam here on the desk but for every 1,000 feet of altitude it defuses and they could go on forever, as you know. you're talking about a light that is a pinpoint here but at 2,000 feet or 3,000 feet when the pilot is bringing the plane in, it's a glow. the cockpit is darkened, the instruments are illuminated and all of a sudden a big wash of green light . it's not going to blind any pilots, it's not that. but very well cause an airplane crash .

    >> i'm bringing evan in. you said you had seen some chatter on al qaeda websites about this.

    >> just within the past few days. if you're looking for a very simple plot or plan to disrupt aviation, why use a bomb when you can use a laser , a handheld laser and that's exactly what they're suggesting people should do and they're broadcasting this out and one reason they're broadcasting it out is because people have seen the news reports suggesting that this is interfering with aviation.

    >> how worried is the faa?

    >> i don't believe the faa is thinking that there is a mu nevolent act. i agree with evan, i do not, for a minute, doubt that there is the whole point of terrorism, the whole point is to get people scared. it doesn't have to bring down an airplane, but it gets people scared. almost 3,000 in 2010 , that's a big increase. but, are there lots and lots of folks trying to bring down airplanes? no. i think it's about the laserist, not the airplane.

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