Airline pilots and federal officials launched a campaign Monday to warn about the dangers of people pointing lasers into cockpits. They're promising prosecution for those who are caught, and a reward for those who turn them in.
While the powerful beams of light do not harm the aircraft, they can temporarily blind pilots, some of whom had to hand over control to a co-pilot.
Capt. Richard Deeds, a retired airline pilot, said a laser interfering with a pilot could mean life or death.
"If it was at a critical point where you couldn't pass the airplane over to the other pilot and he crashed, you could not only hurt the pilot, you could hurt the passengers and kill people on the ground," he said. "So it's a very serious situation. Not a joke. Not a joke at all."
The number of reported incidents nationwide increased from about 2,800 in 2010 to nearly 4,000 last year, according to data collected by the Federal Aviation Administration. The FAA attributed the increase to more reporting by pilots as well as the availability of stronger lasers that can reach higher altitudes.
Portland, Ore., had the most reported instances, with 139. The rest of the top 10: Houston; Phoenix; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Los Angeles; Las Vegas; Chicago; New York; Honolulu; and Miami.
No laser incident has resulted in a crash, but officials emphasized Monday that the threat is real. The FBI plans to offer a $10,000 reward for information that leads to a conviction.
"We applaud the FBI for recognizing how serious this situation is,'' said Capt. Sean Cassidy, first vice president of the Airline Pilots Association.
The FAA said that over the past two years, it has investigated 152 laser incidents, resulting in 96 "enforcement actions.''
NBC Bay Area's Chase Cain contributed to this report.