Dangerous laser strikes are on the rise, and Phoenix is a hotspot

“It happens every day. Just in Phoenix, it happens every single day.”
“It happens every day. Just in Phoenix, it happens every single day.”
Updated: Sep. 8, 2022 at 8:00 AM MST
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PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) - Pilots are facing a growing threat in the sky, and now a government watchdog group says the FAA needs to do more to protect pilots and passengers from lasers.

When a laser strike happens, the effect is immediate. “I’ve been hit dozens of times over the years,” said Sergeant Jonathan Howard with the Phoenix Police Department’s Air Unit. “It’s like a flash photo, but then somebody is aiming a light at you afterwards.” The light from handheld laser pointers is blinding.

It’s often green, but sometimes shines blue or red and fills the cockpit. “It takes your eyes a period of time to readjust. Sometimes very severe headaches. Sometimes nausea,” Sgt. Howard said. “Now they’re still trying to fly an aircraft over a populated city. It’s only a matter of time before a really bad accident occurs.” From police helicopters to small planes and even 737s flying in and out of Sky Harbor International Airport, laser strikes are happening more often. According to FAA data, across the country last year there was a 41% jump in reported laser strikes. Out of the 9,723 laser strikes documented in 2021, pilots in Arizona reported 334 of them, 235 of which happened right here in Phoenix.

Through July of this year, FAA data shows there have been 119 laser strikes reported in Phoenix, a much larger number than in other cities. For example, during the same time period, 8 laser strikes were reported in Boston, 19 in Chicago, 70 in Dallas-Fort Worth, 39 in Los Angeles, 36 in Miami, 22 in New York and Newark combined, 33 in Philadelphia, and 121 in Seattle.

Howard says the statistics likely don’t capture the true scope of the problem. “They’re so underreported,” Howard said. “It happens every day. Just in Phoenix, it happens every single day.” The FAA said it could not speculate on the cause for the increase in laser incidents, but Howard believes there are two main factors contributing to the increase in Phoenix.

“Our valley is so open. We don’t have trees. We don’t have the same foliage that other parts of the country have. We’re seeing laser strikes from five, six, ten miles out sometimes. And airliners are reporting them up to 15,000 feet and higher, so that’s a combination of our open environment as well as the power of the lasers that are now readily available,” he said. Laser pointers are cheap and are often marketed as a cat toy. On Your slide found a slew of options available online for less than $20.

Jack David, director of safety at Aeroguard Flight Training Center, says the school’s crews are taught how to handle laser strikes. “Whether someone is doing it with malicious intent or they’re doing it as a prank, the potential severity of the outcome is the same,” David said. “First thing we tell them to do is don’t look into the light, because that’s where you could get either temporary or even permanent eye damage. The next thing we ask them to do is note their current position on their GPS navigation system.” That could help law enforcement track down who’s responsible. “When you’re in the airplane, it appears as though it’s pointing right at you,” David said. “You have to presume it’s intentional or not haphazard.”

“Many times we can divert our attention and attempt to locate and identify the offender, in which case we will. And we’ll send not only Phoenix police officers over, but we’re working with the FBI,” Howard said. “We’ll actually send FBI agents out there. The problem is getting that bad.” Laser strikes are a federal crime, and according to a recent report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, individual penalties have topped $27,000 and even prison sentences could reach up to 51 months.

Dangerous laser strikes are on the rise, and Phoenix is a hotspot. On top of that, it's a...
Dangerous laser strikes are on the rise, and Phoenix is a hotspot. On top of that, it's a federal crime.(Arizona's Family)

According to the FAA, the agency issued $120,000 in fines in 2021, but prosecution is rare. The FAA only reported four prosecutions, prompting the GAO to call on the FAA to do a better job of collecting and sharing information about laser strikes with law enforcement. There were 44 prosecutions for laser strikes between July 2016 and September 2020, according to a GAO report.

The report also recommends more outreach to educate the public about the real hazards of lasers. “FAA, FBI, and the Food and Drug Administration, which has regulatory authority over lasers, each conduct outreach to educate the public about laser incidents,” the GAO noted. “These agencies were involved in an interagency group to address laser safety concerns until 2015 when the group dissolved. Since then, laser incidents have increased and identifying subjects remains difficult. FAA is well positioned to lead an interagency effort to explore re-establishing this group, given FAA’s responsibility for the safety of the national airspace.”

In a statement to On Your Side, the FAA said the following:

“The FAA is committed to maintaining the safest air transportation system in the world. Aiming a laser at an aircraft is a serious safety hazard that puts everyone on the plane and on the ground below at risk. It is also a violation of federal law. To reduce laser attacks, the agency conducts outreach to educate the public about the hazards of lasers aimed at aircraft. The agency also works closely with other federal agencies and state and local governments to report and investigate incidents, help apprehend suspects, and advocate for the prosecution of offenders. The agency will respond directly to the GAO on the recommendations in the August 18, 2022 report.”

Federal Aviation Administration

You can read the full report here.