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Laser pointing should bring criminal punishment: ACPA

Feb. 18, 2014, Ottawa - A spike in blinding laser attacks against airliners has Canada’s largest pilots’ association demanding government controls and tough criminal sanctions.


February 18, 2014
By The Ottawa Citizen

“It’s a real threat to passengers and
public safety. It’s not a minor issue anymore,” Capt. Craig Blandford,
president of the Air Canada Pilots’ Association said Thursday.

 

At
the very least, pilots are at risk of being distracted. Worse, they can
lose their night vision just as they’re about to land a speeding
passenger plane loaded with jet fuel.

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“In Lac Megantic, a terrible
tragedy, 47 people were killed. If an airplane goes down because of a
laser there’s going to be more than 47 people who are going to be hurt,”
said Blandford.

 

“We don’t want a crash to cause us to do
something. This is one of those things where we know it’s happening now,
let’s get the enforcement, the proper regulations in place to provide a
safer environment and punish appropriately. If you get caught, it’s
going to cause you significant pain.”

 

Blandford’s comments follow
Transport Canada statistics showing a 24-per-cent increase last year in
reported laser-pointer strikes against aircraft in Canadian skies — 461
compared to 357 in 2012. There have been 22 incidents so far this year.

 

Ottawa bucks the national trend; there are no reported incidents this year and a big drop — 20 to six incidents — for 2012-2013.

 

Planes
in the U.S. experienced nearly 4,000 laser strikes last year. The
situation is now so concerning, the Federal Aviation Administration,
Federal Bureau of Investigation and Air Line Pilots Association launched
a campaign this week to focus on 12 cities where laser attacks are
prevalent. The effort includes rewards of up to $10,000 for information
leading to the arrest of individuals who intentionally aim lasers at
aircraft.

 

In Canada, incidents tend to occur at one of the most
critical phases of flight, usually when aircraft are preparing to land
at night, roughly 4,500 to 8,500 feet off the ground and a few nautical
miles away from the runway threshold.

 

They make low, slow targets for
laser pointers.

 

Pilots are typically busy getting their aircraft
set up for final approach, watching for obstacles and coming in over
heavily populated areas. And that doesn’t include negotiating bad
weather.

 

“Then all of sudden one of these things hits the cockpit?
If we’re not using the autopilot, as often happens, there’s potential
danger and that’s really what we want to draw attention to,” said
Blandford. That was the case in Ottawa one night last May. A U.S. flight
from Buffalo was three nautical miles from Runway 7 when the pilot
advised the tower the cockpit was illuminated by blinding laser coming
from a park in Barrhaven. The plane landed safely and police were
called. But like the vast majority of cases, it’s difficult to catch the
offenders.

 

Pilots also can suffer prolong eye damage and find themselves grounded.

 

The
Aeronautics Act already prohibits directing laser pointers at aircraft.
If convicted, offenders face a maximum $100,000 fine, five years in
prison or both.

 

The pilots’ association, which has long complained
to government about the problem, now wants it elevated to a Criminal
Code offence.

 

“We’ve gone
through this with impaired driving. When you only slap somebody on the
wrist there’s not a lot of deterrent. You need significant deterrence,
let’s put in the Criminal Code,” said Blandford.

 

“We’d (also) like
to see a control put on them, some kinds of permits or access to these
things that’s somehow controlled. I’m not sure to go so far as to say we
want them on a prohibited weapons list, but that’s one of the things
that we’re pursuing in order to get stricter on control.”

 

Transport
Canada has used public awareness campaigns, including a web page, and
says it co-ordinates with police and justice officials to pursue
prosecutions. The number of such cases was not immediately available
Thursday. The 2009 arrest of an Edmonton man who pointed a laser at a
police helicopter is believed to be the only case that’s been publicly
reported.