Laser Pointer Incidents Up at Bay Area Airports

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    A man who sells commercial lasers for a living has been arrested in El Cerrito, after shining one of his laser pointers at a CHP helicopter, momentarily incapacitating the pilot, police said Monday.

    More than 100 incidents occurred at Los Angeles International Airport last year in which the safety of planes was put at risk by people pointing at them with lasers, and nearly as many incidents at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport, 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.

    Many of the incidents involve 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.

    Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the laser incidents "an unacceptable risk to passenger safety."

    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 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, an Orange, Calif., man was sentenced to 2 1/2 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, Calif. A Parsippany, N.J., 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.

    There 108 incidents at the Los Angeles airport last year, more than any other airport, FAA said. O'Hare was next, with 98, followed by airports in Phoenix and San Jose, Calif., both with 80; Las Vegas, 72; Philadelphia, 66; Oakland, Calif., 55; Honolulu, 47; San Francisco, 39; Denver and Newark, N.J., both 38; Tucson, Ariz., 37; Miami and Salt Lake City, both 36; Portland, Ore., and Ontario, Calif., both 32; Burbank, Calif., Orange County, Calif., and Baltimore, each 31, and Seattle, 26.