The United States aviation watchdog has released data showing an increase in laser strikes in 2020, despite the drop in flights due to COVID-19 restrictions. 

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s report of September 1, 2021, stated there were  6,852 laser incidents in 2020, up from 6,136 in 2019.

“Pointing a laser at an aircraft can temporarily blind a pilot and not only affects the crew but endangers passengers and the communities they fly over every night,” said Steve Dickson, FAA administrator, in the report.

The number of incidents reported in 2020 was the highest annual total since 2016, the FAA declared.

The report said the FAA has issued $600,000 in fines since 2016, including $120,000 in 2021.

Laser strikes pose an imminent danger to aviation safety globally. Pointing a laser beam to an aircraft can be extremely dangerous as it causes glares in the pilot’s eyes and can lead to eye damage. It can trigger temporary flash blindness and afterimages, as per a report by LaserpointSafety. 

The ‘FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012’ classifies the activity as a federal crime to protect airspaces and aircraft from potential laser strikes.

According to 18 United States Code (USC) 39(A), “Whoever knowingly aims the beam of a laser pointer at an aircraft in the special aircraft jurisdiction of the United States, or at the flight path of such an aircraft, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than 5 years, or both.”

Violators convicted of shining lasers at aircraft are liable to pay fines up to $11,000 per violation and up to $30,800 for multiple laser incidents as per FAA’s website. 

Due to a surge in laser-related incidents, the FAA released an advisory circular on March 4, 2020, stating,” ATC regards a laser illumination incident as an in-flight emergency, and will treat them as such until the aircrew states otherwise.”