OKLAHOMA CITY – Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta (search) announced changes Wednesday to the way pilots report lasers (search) being beamed at airplanes — a response to a rash of such incidents in recent weeks.
Mineta also issued a stern warning that federal officials will aggressively prosecute those caught shining laser beams into cockpits. The bright lasers — usually green — can temporarily blind pilots.
"We will not allow careless people making stupid choices to put pilots and their passengers at risk," Mineta said.
He said authorities do not believe that people shining lasers at airplanes have terrorist motivations. They suspect that copycats who have heard news reports about the lasers apparently have been involved in some of the more recent incidents.
Mineta said the Federal Aviation Administration (search) will now require pilots to immediately report laser incidents to air traffic controllers, who would then repeatedly broadcast warnings and quickly notify law officers.
There appears to be no current problem with the way pilots report the lasers to authorities, but the changes will standardize the reporting system and provide police with more timely and detailed information.
A cluster of laser incidents received wide attention between Christmas and New Year's Day.
Mineta said in a news conference at the FAA's aeronautical research center in Oklahoma City that 31 of these incidents have been reported since Dec. 31, including one Tuesday night involving a Southwest Airlines flight in Phoenix, Ariz. Nobody was arrested.
He said there have been 400 reports of lasers being beamed at airplanes since 1990.
"Shining these lasers at an airplane is not a harmless prank," Mineta said. "It's stupid and dangerous. You are putting other people at risk and law enforcement authorities are going to seek you out and if they catch you, they are going to prosecute you."
Mineta said officials are working on possible devices to protect pilots from lasers, including modifications to windshields, but no one solution has emerged. Research into the issue is being done at the aeronautical center in Oklahoma City.
He also said an effort will be made through government regulatory agencies to ensure that laser devices are better labeled to warn about the dangers of using them improperly.
Terry McVenes, executive air safety chairman for the Air Line Pilots Association, (search) said in a telephone interview that pilots are on board with Mineta's plan.
"We're very happy with what the secretary has done here," McVenes said. "It does provide a means of collecting data so we can assess what the threat really is, or if there is a threat."
A New Jersey man was arrested and charged under the Patriot Act (search) last week for aiming a green laser at a small jet flying over his home near Teterboro Airport (search). The man, David Banach (search), said he had been using the device to point at the stars from his back yard.
That type of laser pointer, which sells for $119, is the most powerful that can be used in a public place without government regulation, according to Bigha (search), the company that manufactures it. It produces a bright green beam that can be seen up to 25,000 feet away, and is used by bird watchers, astronomers and lecturers to point out faraway objects.
The FBI and Homeland Security Department (search) sent a memo to law enforcement agencies in November saying they had evidence terrorists have explored using lasers as weapons.