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.
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.