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US: Aviation reporter says FAA anti-laser efforts aren't working; wants more social media

Aviation reporter Christine Negroni called the FAA’s effort to publicize prosecutions of laser offenders “unsuccessful.” Speaking on an August 29 2015 podcast, Negroni said “they haven’t even learned from their lack of success and it’s very, very frustrating to me.”

Negroni began the segment by noting that laser incidents are “truly a menace and it’s not to be taken lightly.” She said offenders “don’t watch the news, they don’t read the paper” and thus “they need to be reached out on their level. And that level is like a Facebook level or a Twitter level, where people are actually going to learn.”

She concluded that “it’s just time for the establishment to get on board, before something really terrible happens.”

Negroni has written aviation articles for publications such as the New York Times and Smithsonian Air & Space, is an on-air expert for ABC, CNN and NBC, and has a book on mysterious aviation accidents coming out in 2016. She previously wrote an article for RGN critical of FAA laser publicity efforts entitled “No let-up in laser attacks on airplanes” published December 13 2013, and a blogpost on the same topic on August 28 2014.

From the Runway Girl Network podcast episode 27, “Crash Investigations and Laser Incriminations”, uploaded August 29 2015. A transcript of the laser-relevant parts of the podcast is below.

This is a transcript of the laser-relevant parts of the August 29 2015 podcast “Crash Investigations and Laser Incriminations.” Passages with special interest for laser/aircraft safety issues have been put in boldface by LaserPointerSafety.com.

Host Mary Kirby (MK): Now it is my great pleasure to introduce our guest today, Christine Negroni. She’s a highly regarded freelance journalist covering aviation and travel, including for the New York Times. Christine is also an author, she wrote the book Deadly Departures about the TWA Flight 800 disaster. She’s an avid blogger and a regular expert source for media titles ….

(They go through an introduction and banter before bringing up the topic of laser/aviation safety.)

Co-host Max Flight (MF): .… the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, well, they’ve been tracking an increase, a significant increase, in laser pointer incidents. Now Christine, you’ve covered this topic in depth. Why should we be alarmed about this continued rise in these incidents, and what could it mean for passenger and crew safety?

Guest Christine Negroni (CN): Well, I think we need to be very alarmed. I have two strong opinions on this subject. One is that it is truly a menace and it’s not to be taken lightly. These events happen at the worst times. They happen at a very high workload phase of flight, usually on landing, it can be on departure but usually on landing because it gives the laserist an opportunity to actually find the target they’re going to lase and then follow it as it gets onto approach and landing. So it happens at a very critical time in flight, it’s very disorienting to the crew, if they’re working with any other problem no matter how small, it layers on in a high workload environment — another task to deal with, and then there’s the startle factor, so yes, I think truly it is a big, big problem I don’t think anyone’s overstating the issue here.
But my true frustration with this is the laser attacks on airplanes is not a new phenomenon and the FAA’s way of dealing with it is completely 20th Century. They take this name-and-shame approach like 16-year-old juveniles are watching the news and learning from it. They’re using yesterday’s technology to tackle tomorrow’s threat, or today’s threat, and it’s been unsuccessful; they haven’t even learned from their lack of success and it’s very, very frustrating to me. Max, you and Mary, what you have already forgotten about the use of social media in you know sort of, communicating a message, just what you’ve forgotten, if they took that tiny bit and used it in their approach of how to conquer this threat, they’d be far ahead of where they are today.

MK: Wow, that’s interesting, Christine. This is the same agency of course that’s only just now gotten around to forming a cybersecurity working group to improve security on board aircraft. They’re a little slow in a number of ways, aren’t they, the FAA?

CN: You know, it is a conservative industry — I get that. But you didn’t get the Dreamliner, you didn’t get the A380, you didn’t get these airplanes by sitting around and doing what you did yesterday. There is the outlier in aviation, and FAA needs to be harnessing that part of the business if they really want to make progress in terms of keeping up with what’s going on.

MF: I think it’d be a great idea to catch more of these folks and really make examples of them. I mean, I’d like to see jail time, actually.

CN: Well, see, that’s where I’m arguing with you, Max. I don’t think that’s effective, I really don’t. If you look at the statistics of who these people are, very few of them are malevolent actors. They’re the geek, they’re the guy who lives in his parents’ basement. They don’t watch the news, they don’t read the newspaper, they’re a little bit antisocial. But they’re not criminals, they’re not. They’re … they’re stupid. That’s the issue. And in fact one of the FAA guys told me when I was doing the interview for the story I did for Mary, is that he was out on a jetty somewhere and there was a guy with a beer gut talking to his kid, and they were both doing it.
These are not guys who learn from the lock-‘em-up-and-put-‘em-in-jail. They need to be reached out on their level. And that level is like a Facebook level or a Twitter level, where people are actually going to learn. So I don’t want to argue with you — but I just did.

MF: Well, no, that’s good though. That’s a really interesting perspective and guess I hadn’t really considered it in that light. Maybe that’s useful to make some progress here.

MK: Yeah, it sounds like new techniques are needed. But to your point Christine, I have observed this also on social media where it seems like there is a real kind of division in terms of what people think should be done. I’ve actually seen people call for the death penalty.

MF: Wow…

CN: Well, you know what, you can do that, but you’ll solve the problem one by one. (Laughter)

MK: Right.

CN: We need I think a more comprehensive solution.

(The conversation moves on to drone reports and safety, and then comes back to similarities between drone and laser misuse.)

MF: I guess similar to what Christine has mentioned, has described, some of the folks who are out there with their laser pointers, I think it may be a similar kind of situation. I mean, these are folks that have gone off to Amazon or someplace — BestBuy — and bought a DJI Phantom and they’re out there with their video camera and they’re thinking, “Wow, there’s a jet over there, maybe I can fly up close to that and get some good footage.” And it’s an obvious safety problem that is accelerating.

MK: You know, this … I guess it’s a story for another time, but it seems to me that it’s coming down to blatant stupidity for a lot of these folks, it really is then, Christine, right?

CN: Well, I do think it’s a toy phenomenon. At the risk of sounding a bit sexist, I think it’s kind of like a boys-and-toys thing. These are gadgets, like the lasers are gadgets, and it’s just play. And if you consider that that’s the … and not … obviously not the whole use of drones, I mean there’s great commercial and business applications for drones, but largely the ones that are zooming around taking pictures of orcas and planes in flight, these are people who are playing, and you have to speak to them in their world, which is not the world that you traditionally think of in terms of information sharing. And that’s just me sounding old, because a lot of people think of information sharing in this new way, and it’s just time for the establishment to get on board, before something really terrible happens.

MF: And that’s one thing that almost all the experts will tell you if you ask them “What do you think is going to be the outcome of this?” Just about everybody says that sooner or later there’s going to be a very unpleasant accident as a result of this, and hopefully that won’t happen, hopefully we can change the mindset of these people, the culture around it, before that happens.

CN: I’m a little concerned that positions — at least in terms of drones — positions have hardened because it’s not like lasers, you can’t … which is simply … when people are lasing airplanes that’s just recreation, but because drones do have this multiple purpose people who want to make commercial use of drones for land surveying or weddings or whatever, they’re feeling like the FAA is coming down on them hard and they’re just trying to make a buck. So they’re sort of feeling like very galvanized against any kind of regulation over drones. On the other side there’s the kid and the toy and they obviously do need to be regulated. So it’s sort of was bad planning going in and it’s created a kind of a difficult situation to work with. Max, what do you think?

MF: Yeah, I think this is a story that’s going to play out over the course of months and months. Interesting to watch. There certainly are lots of applications, very valid applications, for these aircraft. But the process of getting to a state of regulations where it’s safe, and getting the public to understand the safety implications, it’s a long road, unfortunately.

(The conversation then moves on to a new topic; that is the end of laser-related discussion.)