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Pilots report laser pointer misuse monthly – Anti-laser campaign announced

Handheld laser pointers pointed at airplanes and helicopters represent a risk to flight safety, according to the Finnish Transport Safety Agency. Officials launched an anti-laser pointing campaign on Friday.

Both airplane and helicopter pilots report more than fifty cases of laser pointer misuse a year. Image: Jari Laasanen / Yle

Ilkka Kaakinen from the Finnish Transport Safety Agency (Trafi) says that laser pointers interfering with air traffic is a real problem in Finland.

”We receive reports of several cases of laser interference every month,” Kaakinen says, ”and every one of them is potentially dangerous.”

If the light from a laser pointer – a device intended for use in presentations – reaches a pilot’s eye, they may be momentarily blinded and unable to operate the aircraft’s machinery. Pilots themselves say the disturbances are a great risk, says Kaakinen. Pilots are instructed to divert their gaze is they encounter laser interference, and to let their co-pilot man the control device is they become momentarily blinded.

Last year, 60 cases of laser pointer interference were reported, and the figure for this year was at 58 last November. The United States reports the most laser pointer interference, with the United Kingdom recording the most cases in Europe.

Trafi, the Finnish Pilots’ Association and the Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority launched a joint campaign against air traffic interference – “Lasers Are Not Toys” – on Friday.

One charged in Finland, not convicted

Kaakinen says that the statements of pilots themselves are the basis for verifying incidents of laser disturbances.

”One person has been caught misusing a laser pointer in this way here in Finland,” he says. “Wrongdoers are caught all the time in other countries.”

That single person was not convicted of a crime, as the court was not able to establish intent.

Kaakinen says that other countries hand down severe punishments for interfering with air traffic, even years-long stretches in prison.

Office tool has kilometres-long range

While cases of laser pointer misuse have not increased in Finland, figures for other countries tell a very different story. The United States recorded some 1,500 disturbance cases in 2009, with a huge increase up to 4,000 cases in 2013. And yet, no aircraft accidents resulting from laser pointer misuse have ever been reported.

The laser in pointers used as office tools in presentations has a range of several kilometres. Kaakinen says it is important for users of laser pointers to understand that the devices are not toys, and that children should be warned of the potential danger in using them irresponsibly – or ideally, not given one at all.

Kaakinen also says that the high availability, ease of use and cheap prices of laser pointers have increased their irresponsible use.