People who knowingly aim laser pointers at aircraft would be committing a federal crime subject to up to five years in prison under legislation passed by both the House and the Senate.
The House on Monday approved by voice vote the Securing Cockpits Against Laser Pointers Act, a response to a growing number of incidents of pilots being distracted or even temporarily blinded by laser beams and concerns that terrorists might use lasers to bring down aircraft.
The Senate passed the same provision a month ago as an amendment to a Federal Aviation Administration spending bill. The two chambers must now agree on a common format to send it to President Barack Obama for his signature.
The FAA reports that the number of cases of people pointing laser at planes and helicopters jumped from 1,527 in 2009 to 2,836 in 2010. In some cases pilots have had to relinquish control of an aircraft to a co-pilot because of vision loss.
The House bill's sponsor, Republican Dan Lungren of California, said there were only 400 reported incidents in the 15-year period before 2005, when a similar bill passed the House. He said another major concern has been cases of airborne police units being forced to abort crime scene responses because of laser interference.
Law enforcement pilots "have to consider the possibility that they are being illuminated by a laser scope attached to a rifle," Lungren said. He said the shining of lasers at aircraft cockpit was "a tragedy waiting to happen."
In addition to temporarily incapacitating pilots, laser beams can cause eye damage.
The threat from handheld laser pointers has grown as they become more powerful and more affordable. Lasers that once cost more than $1,000 can now be bought online for a few hundred dollars or less. Incidents have been common near airports where pilots, either coming in for landing or taking off, need to be at their most alert.
"The risk associated with laser illuminations is unacceptable," said Capt. Lee Moak, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, International. He said "pointing lasers at aircraft in flight poses a serious safety risk to the traveling public" and urged the government, in addition to passing legislation, to restrict the sale of high-powered portable lasers and increase the size of laser-free zones around airports.
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.
Associated Press writer Joan Lowy contributed to this report.
The bill is H.R. 386.
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