Laser beams pointed at aircraft a growing problem in the US

Overlooking the runway and gates at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. (Photo by Samantha Witherwax/Cronkite News)

More than 170 times last year, someone pointed a laser at an aircraft in Arizona, according to data compiled by the Federal Aviation Administration, and pilots and passengers are in agreement that the perpetrators need to be punished.

American Airlines Flight 563 from Phoenix to San Diego reported a green laser being shone at the plane minutes before landing on Tuesday night. The plane landed safely and the FAA declined to comment on the report.

This incident shines a brighter light on the issue of intentional laser interference.

“It’s definitely very dangerous because best case scenario, it’s momentarily distracting and blinding,” pilot Michael Cawley said. “Worst case scenario you can cause permanent eye damage, which would end a pilot’s career.”

And then there’s the danger to the plane and its passengers.

“When people are shining lasers on an airplane that’s coming in to land, you’re endangering potentially several hundred lives at once.” Cawley said. “There is a reason it’s a federal crime.”

Passenger Jessica Laesii, who was at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport on Wednesday, said that if she were on a plane with a laser being pointed at it, it would worry her.

“Flying, I think, can always be stressful. So to add anything out of the norm to that experience, I feel would be a bad experience,” she said.

Cawley said that when a laser light hits the plane’s dual pane windows, the light is expanded.

“It actually reflects off the window and kind of lights up the whole cockpit,” he said. “It’s very distracting, very easily.”

He added “it has happened to me a couple of times, thankfully it was on the side window and so we weren’t looking straight at it when it happened.”

Pointing a laser and interfering with an aircraft is considered a federal felony. Suspects can be sentenced 5 to 20 years in prison as well as a hefty fine.

“I think spending time in prison is absolutely warranted,” Cawley said. “Again like I said, you’re endangering hundreds of lives all at once, very quickly, both in the airplane and on the ground potentially depending on what happens.”

Lauren Grifo, airline passenger, says she agrees with the current laws in place for this offense.

“There is really no excuse to do that, people know that you shouldn’t be doing something like that so 5 years if nobody is hurt… that’s probably a good enough punishment,” Grifo said.