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SALT LAKE CITY — People who shine lasers into aircraft cockpits could be subject to fines up to $11,000 per incident as part of new civil fines announced by the Federal Aviation Administration.
In Utah, where 36 such incidents were reported by the Salt Lake City International Airport in 2010, the new fines could play a role in reducing the number of such incidents. Fifteen such incidents have been reported thus far this year, according to airport officials.
Utah's 2010 experience tied Miami International Airport for the 13th-highest rate of laser events in the nation.
In 2004, a Delta Air Lines pilot at the Salt Lake airport sustained eye damage when a laser was shined into the cockpit of the passenger jet he was piloting.
In January, an AirMed helicopter leaving the University of Utah was hit by a powerful green laser at night in the cockpit. The pilot said he has been tagged by a laser four times in the past three years.
Rob Stantus, program manager with AirMed, said the new fines are welcomed.
"One of the things to remember is that these (lasers) are not toys people are shining at aircraft," Stantus said. "The potential for injury to our pilots and the danger that poses to pilots flying the aircraft, crews and patients we are transporting lends light to the serious nature of these laser incidents — not only to helicopters, also to commercial aviation around the valley."
Chief Warrant Officer Ken Sampson of the Utah National Guard experienced a laser "hit" two years ago while flying a helicopter above Bluffdale. Although neither he nor his co-pilot lost control of the chopper, the potential for harm is great. The new fines may help discourage this activity.
"In my opinion, I think it's a good call," Sampson said.
A recent legal interpretation by the FAA determined that directing a laser beam into an aircraft cockpit could interfere with a flight crew while operating an aircraft, a violation of federal aviation regulations.
Nationwide, reports of laser events have increased from nearly 300 in 2005 to 2,836 in 2010. The highest number of events occurred at Los Angeles International Airport, with 102; Chicago O'Hare, 98; and 80 each at Phoenix Sky Harbor and San Jose International.
FAA officials say the spike in incidents can be attributed to the agency encouraging pilots to file reports, the availability of inexpensive laser devices on the Internet; stronger lasers and the introduction of green lasers, which are easier to see than red lasers.
"Shining a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft is not a joke. These lasers can temporarily blind a pilot and make it impossible to land the aircraft, jeopardizing the safety of our passengers, pilots and air transportation system," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt.
In 2004, a Delta Air Lines pilot at the Salt Lake airport sustained eye damage when a laser was shined into the cockpit of the passenger jet he was piloting. He was five miles from landing. The plane, according to press reports at the time, landed without incident. A doctor confirmed that the pilot suffered retinal damage.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, in announcing the civil penalties, said the department's top priority is the safety of the traveling public.
"We will not hesitate to take tough action against anyone who threatens the safety of our passengers, pilots and air transportation system," LaHood said.
The new fines come on top of criminal penalties for shining lasers into aircraft. Federal legislation to outlaw the activity is pending in Congress. However, a number of cities and states have criminal penalties for intentionally shining lasers at aircraft.
In Utah, it is a class C misdemeanor to point a laser pointer at a law enforcement officer and an infraction to point a laser at a moving vehicle.
Contributing: Jed Boal, Marc Giauque