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An analysis and status report of H.R. 386, the “Securing Aircraft Cockpits Against Lasers Act of 2011”

On February 14 2012, President Barack Obama signed a bill which contains the language of H.R. 386. This means that it is now a federal crime to aim a laser pointer at an aircraft, or at the flight path of an aircraft. Although this is now U.S. law, we are leaving up this page which goes into detail about some potential problems with the bill. Hopefully, regulators will interpret the bill with common sense, so it applies only to laser pointers and so that any FAA-reviewed-and-approved outdoor laser uses remain legal.

Background


On January 20 2011, Rep. Daniel Lungren (Rep-Calif District 3) introduced H.R. 386, “to provide penalties for aiming laser pointers at airplanes, and for other purposes.” (This is the same bill introduced in 2010 as H.R. 5810 which did not pass the 111th Congress.) While the idea is admirable, the bill has significant flaws and should not be passed in its present form, in the opinion of LaserPointerSafety.com:

  • HR 386 only addresses lasers used for pointing. For fairness and safety, it should address any laser use in airspace, not just lasers “designed to be used by the operator as a pointer or highlighter to indicate, mark, or identify a specific position, place, item, or object.”
  • A strict reading of the bill could ban laser light shows, astronomy uses, and other uses which are currently legal and FAA-reviewed under existing regulations. (This is because the bill only allows FAA-approved uses in research and development, and in flight test operations. Even if the Federal Aviation Administration wants to permit other uses, HR 386 would not allow this without intervention by the Attorney General.)
  • The bill does not take into account existing laser light levels which are legal and safe, according to the FAA who set up these “laser zones”. Since laser light goes on essentially forever, even dim or spread-out laser light barely visible by an aircraft cruising at 35,000 feet would be prosecutable under HR 386.

HR 386 is well-intentioned. We agree with the bill’s overall goal. However, the bill as written is too limited (laser pointers only), does not cover negligent uses or non-pointing uses that are hazardous, could be interpreted to ban legal uses, and does not take into account that laser light is legal in some amounts and airspace zones under FAA’s own regulations.

We urge that HR 386 not be passed in its present form. We support an improved bill that would punish deliberate aiming at or near an aircraft (no matter what the laser power), and that appropriately punishes negligent or accidental aircraft illumination based on the amount of laser light, the aircraft’s location within FAA laser safety zones, and whether the use was according to FAA prior review (e.g. under a Letter of Non-Objection).

A more detailed analysis of the HR 386 and its flaws is below, towards the bottom of this page.

Bill status (as of February 15 2012)


SIGNED BY THE PRESIDENT: The language in H.R. 386 was signed into law by President Barack Obama on February 14 2012. It was included as Section 311 of H.R. 658, the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012. It is not necessary for H.R. 386 itself to become law, since that is taken care of by being included in H.R. 658.

Past bill status reports:

HOUSE ACTION:
H.R. 386 was introduced by Rep. Lungren on January 20 2011. It was reported out by the House Judiciary Committee on January 26, and was approved by voice vote on the House floor, on Feb. 28.

SENATE ACTION: The same language was added by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R-RI) on February 1 2011 as Amendment 8 to Senate bill 223, the FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act. The amendment passed on Feb. 3, with one objecting vote (Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY). The entire bill, S 223, passed the Senate on Feb. 17. Because the House passed a bill and the Senate passed the same language as an amendment to a different bill, a joint House-Senate committee will meet to “agree on a common format” before sending the legislation to President Barack Obama for his signature.

SENATE ACTION 2: House action on the FAA bill was held up over the summer. On September 22 2011, Sen. Whitehouse introduced S. 1608, with the same language as H.R. 386. As of September 25, the bill is scheduled to be voted on by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The introduction as S. 1608 appears to be a procedural matter so that the fate of the legislation in the Senate is not tied to the FAA bill.

Historical note about H.R. 5810, the same bill introduced in 2010: The bill passed the House of Representatives by voice vote on July 27 2010, and was sent to the Senate Judiciary Committee. The committee did not take action on the bill so it died for the 111th Session of Congress.

Recommendations


LaserPointerSafety.com recommends a number of improvements be made to the bill. Note that making just one or two of these changes and ignoring the rest could be worse than the present version of HR 386, therefore we recommend all of the following changes together, as a single package:

  1. Change “laser pointer” to “laser”. This should apply to all lasers in airspace.
  2. Revise the definition of “laser” so it applies to any use or intent, not just lasers used “as a pointer or highlighter”
  3. Allow any FAA-reviewed use of lasers in airspace, not just R&D and flight test operations. (More specifically, allow any use reviewed by the FAA where they issue a “Letter of Non-Objection” to the use.)
  4. The law should not apply to accidental, unknowing laser light on pilots when the laser power does not exceed FAA limits for the airspace, or when the pilot does not file a report with the FAA.
  5. Clarify “flight path” so it is not illegal if the laser beam crosses a potential flight path with no active aircraft that could intercept the laser light within a time limit (30 seconds is suggested).

These changes are all incorporated into a proposed U.S. laser law, which improves upon HR 386. Click here for the improved bill.

Detailed analysis


H.R. 386 is an admirable but flawed attempt to prosecute persons aiming lasers at aircraft. While LaserPointerSafety.com supports the supporters’ goals, we believe H.R. 386 should not be passed due to many problems in intent and interpretation.

Specifically, persons who are not expert in laser safety and FAA laser regulations may try to apply the law incorrectly.

Only affects lasers “knowingly” used for pointing


The bill bans “knowingly” aiming the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft or flight path. A person could claim they did not know there was an aircraft, or that they aimed at a “star” without realizing it was really a far-away aircraft. This makes prosecution more difficult.

Also, the bill does not affect persons who through ignorance or negligence aim at aircraft, such as a setup where the beam misses a mirror or backstop, and goes into airspace. Such persons should be prosecuted if they took inadequate precautions and if the incident is serious.

Finally, the bill could be used to prosecute persons who knowingly aim lasers into the night sky, but who are taking adequate precautions against aircraft. For example, the Federal Aviation Administration currently reviews laser use proposals. If a company or person has filed with the FAA, has received a “letter of non-objection” and has taken all reasonable precautions, this should be taken into account -- but unfortunately this is irrelevant under H.R. 386’s current language.

Only addresses lasers used for pointing


A major flaw is that the bill only applies to laser pointers, defined in H.R. 386 as a laser “designed to be used by the operator as a pointer or highlighter to indicate, mark, or identify a specific position, place, item, or object.”

  • First, we believe that all laser light in the sky should be treated the same way. If someone unsafely aims a laser used for a non-pointing purpose, such as an illegal non-FAA reviewed laser show, and hits an aircraft then they should be subject to appropriate prosecution. To the pilot, it does not matter if the light comes from a light show laser or from a laser pointer.
  • Second, the language could be erroneously interpreted to apply to simple laser displays such as “laser searchlights” used at a grand opening, or a civic event where a laser is used to point out various landmarks or tourist attractions. Such displays have been used in Washington D.C. (on the Washington Monument), in New York (with the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center among others), in Miami, and many other U.S. cities. We want to avoid a situation where a federal or local official could try to stop a legal, FAA-reviewed laser show by citing the language of H.R. 386.
  • Third, the language could be erroneously interpreted to apply to astronomy education. Lasers are often used to point out stars -- a “pointing” application. And faraway aircraft, moving slowly relative to the viewer, can look like stars. H.R. 386 bans “knowingly” aiming the beam at an aircraft. Illegality hinges on whether “knowingly” applies to the aiming process or to knowing that it was an aircraft at the end of the beam. This is a subtle but important distinction. For example, a person aims the beam at what they think is a star but is really an aircraft. Is this illegal because they “knowingly aim[ed] the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft”, or is it not illegal because they did not know the star-like object was really an aircraft? There are problems with both approaches.
  • Fourth, the language could be erroneously interpreted to apply to telescopes equipped with guidestar lasers. These are aimed at a point in the sky to form an artificial star. The telescope can use the guidestar’s “dot” to help it focus better, using adaptive optics. A strict reading of the bill could interpret it to apply to the guidestar’s pointing at a specific place. As discussed below, if the laser light goes into the flight path of an aircraft, the observatory could be in technical violation even if spotters are being used (e.g., if no aircraft are in the vicinity).
  • Finally, the language could be erroneously interpreted to apply to other research or technical uses of lasers in the sky. This includes lasers used for communications and for remote sensing (smokestack pollution monitoring). Any industrial user of lasers, where the laser might be used to “point” or “direct” the beam at an object, could be at risk from an overzealous interpretation of what lasers this law applies to.

Does not permit FAA approval outside narrow bounds


Another major flaw is that the bill does not have any provision for FAA-reviewed laser uses in airspace, except for two narrow uses: research and development, or flight test operations. This goes against existing FAA regulations and practice.

Currently, major users such as laser light show producers and observatories submit their proposed laser uses to the FAA. The FAA reviews these and will either object to the use, or will issue a “Letter of Non-Objection”. (For legal reasons, the FAA does not want to say they “approve” or “disapprove” the uses.) For laser light shows, the federal regulatory agency FDA/CDRH requires an FAA Letter of Non-Objection before approving any outdoor laser shows.

Therefore, we believe that any FAA-reviewed use, where FAA issues a Letter of Non-Objection, should be allowed. Of course, the actual use must comply with what was submitted to the FAA.

Does not take into account physics and the power of the laser


As written, H.R. 386 prohibits knowingly aiming a laser pointer beam at an aircraft or its “flight path”. However, the sky is criss-crossed by airplane flight paths. Just about anywhere you might aim a light or laser into the sky, at some point the light -- which can be detected tens or even hundreds of miles away -- will cross an actual or potential flight path. It could be argued that “flight path” means the specific path of a specific plane within a limited time frame, but even here, at night in an urban area, there are many paths in the sky at any given time.

  • At a minimum, H.R. 386 should remove “flight path” and replace it with language such as a prohibition on “aiming a laser beam at an aircraft, or near enough to the aircraft or its flight path to be a potential hazard to the aircraft.”
  • Secondly, H.R. 386 should take into account FAA-developed laser safety zones around airports and sensitive areas. The FAA restricts hazardous levels of laser light within those zones, but it does not ban laser light completely. The zones take into account hazards from glare, flashblindness, and distraction. Said another way, the FAA permits laser light below a specified level, with the level depending on the sensitivity of the airspace (e.g., the area around runways is most sensitive while cruising at 7 miles high is least sensitive).

We believe that deliberate aiming of lasers at or near a visible aircraft by unauthorized (non-FAA reviewed) persons should be illegal. However, accidental or negligent use, or deliberate aiming at an area where there does not appear to be aircraft, should not be prosecuted if the light level is not illegal based on the FAA safety zones. This can be easily determined in many cases, where the laser has been confiscated and the location of the laser user and of the aircraft is known. Simple measurements and calculations will show whether the laser light level was hazardous.


Summary


We have detailed a number of major flaws with H.R. 386. Some of these are inherent flaws, such as not covering all laser light in airspace. Others are potential problems that could arise depending on how some of the language is interpreted. Persons not expert in lasers, or current outdoor laser safety regulations, could ban perfectly safe and currently legal laser uses. It might take months and thousands of dollars in legal fees to challenge ambiguities that never should have been in the law in the first place.

For these reasons, we urge that H.R. 386 not be passed. Instead we support any Congressperson who wants to introduce a new, improved version of the bill.


What you can do


Whether you agree or disagree with HR 386, LaserPointerSafety.com urges you to contact your Senators, members and staffers of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the bill’s sponsor. Let them know what you think. Here are some addresses and links. Note that Representatives and Senators pay the most attention to voters in their districts or states, so include whether you are a constituent. Also, be polite, concise and clear.

Contact your Senators, the Judiciary Committee, and the bill sponsor


How to find and contact your Representative (House Member)
How to find and contact your Senators

Members of the House Judiciary Committee
Contact information for the House Judiciary Committee

Members of the Senate Judiciary Committee
Contact information for the Senate Judiciary Committee

H.R. 386’s sponsor Rep. Daniel Lungren, California 3rd District: Email using a link at his website. Washington Office: 202-225-5716, fax 202-226-1298. District Office: 916-859-9906, fax 916-859-9976.

Track this bill via email


Get automatic email updates anytime the bill’s status changes. First, register at the Govtrack.us website (fast and free) to get an account. Then, go to the the main Govtrack.us webpage for H.R. 386. From this page, you can view the full text, see its current status and get other information on the bill. Look for the link to create a Tracking Page and follow this link. Updates will be sent to the email account you used when you registered.