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2010 FAA incident data analysis

A January 2011 FAA press release said there were 2,836 reports of lasers being pointed at aircraft in the U.S. during calendar year 2010. The release included a list of the top 20 affected U.S. airports. This “FAA top 20” list only ranks airports by number of events. It did not go into details such as how busy an airport is. For example, some less-busy airports may have more laser incidents than normal due to local factors.

LaserPointerSafety.com has analyzed the FAA’s information in conjunction with FAA information on airport operations (takeoffs and landings).


The FAA top 20 laser event airports had a total of over 7 million takeoffs and landings in 2010. This is an average of just over 350,000 takeoffs and landings per airport. There was an average of 50 laser reports in 2010, per airport. As a percentage of all takeoffs and landings, lasers accounted for 14/1000 percent (0.0141%). This represents an average of one laser incident for every 7,079 takeoffs and landings. Expressed another way, there was an average of one laser incident every week at each of these airports.

An important caveat

It is important to note that the FAA’s list is not really about incidents “at” an airport. FAA spokesperson Laura Brown told LaserPointerSafety.com that an incident is generally assigned to the closest airport. (For example, a helicopter being illuminated in downtown Denver may be tallied as part of the Denver International Airport totals, even though the airport is 20 miles from downtown.)

For this reason, it is an approximation to say that a particular airport had X number of incidents. It is more accurate to say that the incidents occurred “at or in the general area” of a particular airport.

The average of the 20 airports does give a fairly good idea of the overall, nationwide incident rate. It is reasonable to say that, for the FAA’s “top 20 laser event” airports, a laser event occurs approximately once every 7,000 takeoffs and landings, on average. Because the FAA says that roughly 90% of events are illuminations, an illumination thus occurs about once every 7,800 takeoffs and landings. (In the other 10% of events, pilots see a laser beam outside their aircraft, but the light does not actually enter the windscreen and illuminate the cockpit.)

Airport operations data source: Federal Aviation Administration ATADS (Air Traffic Activity Data System) statistics for calendar year 2010. Available from the FAA’s Airport Operations and Ranking Reports webpage.

The 10 other busiest U.S. airports

For completeness, below are the FAA statistics on 10 other U.S. airports which were on their “busiest” list, but which were not in the FAA’s list of top 20 airports reporting laser events.