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US: FAA to impose civil penalties of up to $11,000

The Federal Aviation Administration announced on June 1 2011 that they will impose civil penalties of up to $11,000 on any person who aims laser beams at aircraft. According to CNN, the agency’s authority comes from a new legal interpretation “concluding that laser beams can interfere with a flight crew performing its duties while operating an aircraft.” The flight crew interference regulation, first imposed in 1961, was originally intended to combat hijackings and has been applied only to passengers on board or next to an aircraft.

The Wall Street Journal states that “[t]he change is intended to make it easier to punish violators without resorting to time-consuming criminal proceedings.”

Previously, FAA did not go after laser violators directly. FAA will now routinely bring civil charges, and these will be in addition to any other civil or criminal charges brought by others such as the FBI, or state and local law enforcement.
In the past few years in the U.S. there have been a number of persons who have paid large fines and/or been jailed as a result of shining a laser at an aircraft. A selected list of such persons is here.

The Chicago Tribune notes that the FAA action may not apply to one of the most common targets of laser abusers, police helicopters: “Current law also covers commercial flights, but may not extend to law enforcement helicopters that are particularly vulnerable because they fly at lower altitudes.”

From CNN, Bloomberg, the Wall Street Journal and the Chicago Tribune.

Text of the FAA Legal Interpretation Memo

Click the link below for a PDF file containing the June 1 2011 memo from FAA’s lawyers, interpreting 14 CFR 91.11 to include laser light interference from persons on the ground.


Text of 14 CFR 91.11

“No person may assault, threaten, intimidate, or interfere with a crewmember in the performance of the crewmember's duties aboard an aircraft being operated.”

Text of related sections of the U.S. Code

Here are two related sections of the U.S. Code. It is not clear to LaserPointerSafety,com how exactly these interact with or apply to 14 CFR 91.11.
  • U.S. Code Title 49, Subtitle Vii, Part A, Subpart iv, Chapter 465, Paragraph 46504, “Interference with flight crew members and attendants”
An individual on an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States who, by assaulting or intimidating a flight crew member or flight attendant of the aircraft, interferes with the performance of the duties of the member or attendant or lessens the ability of the member or attendant to perform those duties, or attempts or conspires to do such an act, shall be fined under title 18, imprisoned for not more than 20 years, or both. However, if a dangerous weapon is used in assaulting or intimidating the member or attendant, the individual shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life.

  • U.S. Code Title 49, Subtitle Vii, Part A, Subpart iv, Chapter 463, Paragraph 46318, “Interference with cabin or flight crew”
(a) General Rule.— An individual who physically assaults or threatens to physically assault a member of the flight crew or cabin crew of a civil aircraft or any other individual on the aircraft, or takes any action that poses an imminent threat to the safety of the aircraft or other individuals on the aircraft is liable to the United States Government for a civil penalty of not more than $25,000.
(b) Compromise and Setoff.—
(1) Compromise.— The Secretary may compromise the amount of a civil penalty imposed under this section.
(2) Setoff.— The United States Government may deduct the amount of a civil penalty imposed or compromised under this section from amounts the Government owes the person liable for the penalty.

FAA June 1 Press Release

Click to read the FAA’s press release announcing the new policy of taking civil action against persons illuminating aircraft with lasers. The release includes links to audio and video of top FAA officials discussing the action.

FAA June 1 Press Conference Remarks

Prepared remarks by FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, as quoted by the Dallas Morning News:

"We are here to talk about lasers and their effect on aircraft. Casting a laser beam at an airplane is no joke. This is very serious business and we need to get the word out.

"We are announcing today that the Federal Aviation Administration will begin to impose civil penalties, or fines, against those who point a laser device into the cockpit of an aircraft. These fines are a new tool in combating the rise in lasing events.

"Lasers can temporarily blind a pilot and make it impossible to land safely, jeopardizing the safety of passengers and also people on the ground.

"The civil fine will be up to $11,000 for interfering with a flight crew. This means that if your friend points a laser at a plane and then hands you the laser and you do it too, you can each get an $11,000 fine. It's simple. Point a laser, pay the price.

"We are using an interpretation of a long-standing aviation regulation to impose these penalties. Usually when people think of interfering with a flight crew, they think of a disruption on the airplane itself. But pointing a laser at an aircraft is interfering with a flight crew. It interferes with their ability to fly the plane and is every bit as serious.

"We have seen a steady increase in laser events since we began tracking this problem in 2005.

"During this period, the incidents have gone from nearly 300 in 2005... to more than 1,500 in 2009... and last year the number jumped to 2,800.

"This year, Phoenix and Dallas-Fort Worth have seen the greatest number of laser events, with more than 45 each so far. And Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston each have recorded more than 30 laser events.

"We have seen some progress in places like Chicago, where the number of laser events has decreased compared to last year. But as the busy summer travel season begins, we do not want to relax our efforts.

"We are going to do everything we can to protect the safety of our pilots, our passengers and our aircraft.

"We will also work with law enforcement to assist with criminal prosecutions that can be brought under other federal, state and local laws.

"We are actively encouraging pilots to report any incidents of lasers to air traffic controllers so we can contact local law enforcement.

"This is a very serious problem. Lasers today are very strong and can hit aircraft at higher altitudes than before. We now have green laser devices widely available in the marketplace that are stronger and more readily seen than the red lasers used in pointers.

"Bottom line: pointing a laser at an aircraft is a public safety hazard and harms others. Don't do it."

FAA Brochure on “Laser Hazards in Navigable Airspace”

Click the link below to download a brochure from the FAA, in PDF format, about laser hazards to aircraft.