SAN JOSE (CBS 5 / AP) — More than 170 incidents occurred at the Bay Area’s three major airports last year in which the safety of planes was put at risk by people pointing at them with lasers, federal officials said Wednesday.

Overall, the number of incidents nationally in which people pointed lasers at planes and helicopters nearly doubled last year, from 1,527 incidents in 2009 to 2,836 incidents in 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

There were 108 incidents at the Los Angeles International Airport last year, more than any other airport, the FAA said.

But the Bay Area airports all made the top ten on the FAA’s list: Mineta San Jose International Airport was third with 80 incidents, Oakland International Airport was seventh with 55 and San Francisco International Airport ranked ninth with 39.

Many of the incidents involved airliners that were in the midst of takeoffs or landings, critical phases of flight when pilots need to be at their most alert. Pointing lasers at cockpits can temporarily blind pilots or even permanently damage their eyesight. In some instances, pilots have had to relinquish control of their aircraft to another pilot.

Federal Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the laser incidents “an unacceptable risk to passenger safety.”

The FAA began keeping track of the incidents about five years ago, as Internet sales of new, more powerful handheld lasers began to increase. There were about 300 incidents nationwide reported in 2005.

The lasers are many times more powerful than the laser pointers typically used by lecturers. Stargazers use them at night to point to celestial objects. The introduction of green lasers, which are more powerful and more easily seen than red lasers, has also fueled sales.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt urged pilots to immediately report laser incidents to air traffic controllers, who can then report the incidents to police. It’s a violation of federal law to shine a laser at an aircraft. Some cities and states also have laws making it illegal to shine lasers at aircraft.

In 2009, a Southern California man was sentenced to 2 ½ years in prison for aiming a laser at two Boeing jets as the passenger planes were about to land at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. A Parsippany, New Jersey, man received two years’ probation in 2006 after admitting to shining a laser at a plane approaching Teterboro Airport that temporarily blinded the two pilots.

(© 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. and The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

Comments (4)
  1. tn says:

    Now, it doesn’t cost very much to act like a terrorist or idiot. $3 to $5 (plus tax)? And these same people can shine these gadgets at any protective agency while they’re protecting our community and in motion, potentially harming innocent people who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?- near an auto, helicopter, plane. There’s probably technology that may polarize some of the blinding effects of this, but that’s not the long-term solution. Technology is a double-edged sword.