Airline pilots across the U.S. are suffering from what appears to be an increasingly popular pastime: flashing inexpensive hand-held lasers at planes.
The FBI announced Tuesday it’s cracking down on troublemakers by offering a new $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone who has allegedly pointed a laser at a plane.
The money is available through a 60-day pilot program at 12 FBI field offices.
“We’re working to educate teenagers about this – a lot of people just don’t realize the effect it has on pilots,” an FBI spokeswoman who asked not to be identified tells U.S. News.
In addition to educating the public, the FBI hopes tips will make life easier for investigators and prosecutors.
“Prosecutions are a little bit more challenging when we don’t have information on when, where and who,” the spokeswoman says, “and that’s why we’re asking people to come forward with information if they know someone who does this for fun.”
Pointing lasers at planes became a specific federal crime in February 2012, when President Barack Obama signed the FAA Modernization and Reform Act. That act made pointing a laser at a plane a felony punishable by a $250,000 fine and five years in prison. Before that act, people aiming a laser at a plane could be charged with interfering with the operation of an aircraft, which is punishable by 20 years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Criminal prosecutions for "lasing" planes are springing up across the country, and prison time is far from theoretical for people who have either pleaded guilty or been convicted.
Michael Smith, 30, of Omaha, Neb., was sentenced in July 2013 to two years in prison for pointing a laser at a police helicopter that was investigating a Southwest Airlines pilot’s laser sighting. Adam Gardenhire of North Hollywood, Calif., 18 at the time of his arrest, was sentenced to 30 months in prison in March 2013 after pleading guilty to pointing a laser at an airplane and a responding police helicopter. A Florida man was sentenced to six months in prison in August 2012 for pointing a laser at multiple planes. Other cases are pending in California and Oregon.
According to the FBI, there were at least 3,960 instances of planes being laser-flashed in 2013. That’s more than the 3,482 incidents reported in 2012 and 1,100 percent greater than the number of reports in 2005.
“Thousands of laser attacks go unreported every year,” the bureau said in a press release Tuesday.
Douglas Ralph, a Delta Air Lines captain, says he's pleased with the FBI’s push to increase prosecutions.
“After you start making some examples of these people, the incidents should decline,” Ralph says.
Ralph says "lasing" is an industry-wide concern because pilots can be temporarily blinded by laser beams on takeoff and landing.
“What people’s motives are on this are beyond me, because it doesn’t seem like a very intelligent thing to do,” says Ralph, a member of the Air Line Pilots Association, International’s government affairs committee.
The 12 FBI field offices participating in the pilot program are located in Albuquerque, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Sacramento, San Antonio, Washington, D.C., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.