Reports of lasers illegally pointed at aircraft in flight rose to a new high in 2023, the latest spike in a series of steady increases during the past decade.
Laser strikes reported to the Federal Aviation Administration in 2023 surpassed 13,000, compared to 9,457 reports in 2022, according to data the FAA is publishing Wednesday.
Laser pointers, even those sold for less than $20 online, can distract pilots or cause flash blindness — of particular danger during takeoff and landing, when many incidents are reported.
“When you point a laser at a cockpit to blind the pilots, you’re not attacking two pilots. You’re attacking every person on that airplane,” said Dennis Tajer, an American Airlines pilot and spokesperson for the airline’s union. “It’s a big deal.”
These incidents consist of any instances in which a pilot sees a laser in their flight path. Pilots are instructed to report them after a 2012 law that made it a federal crime, punishable by up to five years in prison, to point a laser at an aircraft or its flight path. Half the reported strikes occurred at altitudes of less than 6,000 feet, and nearly 5% of strikes were reported at altitudes of 1,000 feet or lower.
Green laser pointers are the most commonly used, according to the FAA’s data. Patrick Murphy, editor of LaserPointerSafety.com, said green lasers are the most widely available and are also brighter to the eye than a red or blue light of the same power.
Lasers sold for pointing purposes legally can’t exceed 5 milliwatts. At that strength, the laser can cause eye damage up to 52 feet, temporary flash blindness up to 260 feet, glare or disruption up to 1,200 feet and distraction up to 11,700 feet, according to data Murphy compiled from the American National Standards Institute and the SAE International Laser Safety Hazards committee.
In addition to imprisonment on federal charges, a person who aims a laser pointer at an aircraft can be hit with a civil penalty from the FAA, a fine of up to $11,000 per incident. In 2021, the latest year that data was available, the FAA issued $120,000 in penalties.
The vast majority of cases reported, however, are left unsolved. A 2022 study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that perpetrators are only identified in about 1% of laser strikes reported to the FAA.
When the target of the laser strike is police or rescue helicopters, camera equipment helps them zero in on where the laser was shot from. But for airplanes, resolving the incidents is much more difficult, Murphy said.
Experts say the rise in cases reported can likely be attributed to a higher frequency of laser strikes as well as an increase in pilots reporting them.
A spike of reported incidents in 2015 prompted a FAA study into its causes, which found the increase was due in equal parts to more laser strikes and more reports from pilots, according to an FAA manager talking in a 2021 podcast. Tajer echoed this sentiment, noting that although laser strikes seem to be occurring more often, pilots are also “very motivated” to file reports, in hopes that it would prevent someone from doing it again.
California, Florida and Texas saw the highest number of strikes but, when adjusted for population, Hawaii and New Mexico had the highest rate.
“I’m personally disappointed that the rate keeps going up,” Murphy said.
Murphy has been working on laser and aviation issues since the 1990s after having owned his own laser display business. When consumer misuse of laser pointers picked up around 2004, he thought he could raise public awareness and help solve it. Now, he views it as an “ongoing chronic problem.”
There are certain types of people who are behind laser strikes, Murphy said: “A kid in the backyard, or some guy who doesn’t like the noise, or some person with much more evil intent, deliberately aiming at a plane.”
Since 2010, 313 pilots have reported laser strike-related injuries to the FAA, with more than 30 of those reported in 2023. Reported injuries mostly entail eye pain or irritation, flash blindness and afterimages or unspecified eye injuries. It’s rare for a laser strike to cause retinal damage or long-term injuries.
Murphy advised people to report incidents to local police, inform people of the safety threats and avoid giving powerful laser pointers to children.
Tajer, who once landed an airplane during a laser strike, described what it’s like.
“It comes quick. It’s a little bit of a shock. You can’t believe that you’re being laser attacked, and then you get back to doing a job of flying the airplane,” Tajer said. “Moments after that, it sinks in and you frankly want to go return the favor.”
“You don’t have to be a pilot to understand how a pilot is blinded during landing, that bad things could happen,” Tajer said.