Laser threats to aircraft

In the US, the Federal Aviation Administration has long recognized that unauthorized laser illuminations of aircraft may have numerous hazardous effects on aircrew, including distraction, glare, afterimage, flash blindness, and, in extreme circumstances, persistent or permanent visual impairment ( FAA Advisory Circular 70-2A).

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As part of their effort to deal with the hazards posed by lasers, the FAA has encouraged air crew members, air traffic controllers, and the general public to submit reports of aircraft being illuminated by lasers. The FAA has collected this kind of data since at least 2004, and in 2011 published a study (Report DOT/FAA/AM-11/7) about 2,492 laser events that occurred in the US from 2004-2008 that characterized the patterns of exposure by their likelihood of occurrence by time of day and time of year. has produced a follow up study using FAA data from 2010-2014 that included 17,663 laser encounters, which is more than seven times the number of reports analyzed in the earlier FAA study.

  • Over that five-year span, on any given day in the United States, there is a 99.6% chance that at least one aircraft will have a potentially dangerous encounter with a laser beam.
  • There were an average of 9.67 laser encounters per day. The most strikes in one day was 35, and there were no laser encounters on only eight days during that five-year period.
  • Laser events were not uniformly distributed by time period, with laser encounters more likely on Friday and Saturday, during the months of July through November, and from 0000-0500 hours UTC.
  • Comparing the proportion of air traffic in six selected metropolitan areas with the proportion of laser encounters in those areas, the proportion of laser encounters were much higher than the proportion of air traffic in the Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Francisco areas, much lower in the Atlanta area, and about the same in the Chicago and New York metropolitan areas.

Who is this report for?
This report may be useful for the following kinds of groups:

  • Anyone who wants to educate flight crews, airport authorities, law enforcement and other relevant groups as to the extent of the problem (This could be done just cutting and pasting the graphics and basic stats in the report).
  • Organizations that deal with policies related to the commercial use of lasers, for example pushing for specific limits on what can be sold to the public.
  • Organizations currently involved in understanding or reducing aviation safety risks associated with inappropriate use of lasers.
  • Organizations, especially law enforcement agencies that, that seek to understand when and where the risk of laser strikes are highest.

What is in the report?
This report includes numerous tables, charts, and data graphics that illustrate the extent of the laser threat in the US, including the following:

Distribution of laser encounters

Other graphical displays in the full report include the following:

  • Laser encounters by day of the week
  • Laser encounters by month of the year
  • Heat maps showing the highest concentrations of laser strikes by time period

To see key results such as the distribution of laser strikes by time of day, day of the week, or month of the year, as well as the details for how the laser encounter risk for six major metropolitan areas were created, visit one of the following links:

In addition to the links to the full report above, below are links to the resources used to complete this analysis:

FAA resources
FAA laser study from 2011
Laser News, Laws, & Civil Penalties
Air Traffic Activity System (ATADS)
Report a US laser incident

United kingdom resources
BALPA laser illumination hazard
Laser exposure self-assessment tool
Laser attacks - Safety notice SN - 2012/005
UK laser reports 2014
UK laser reports Jan-Jun 2015

Other resources
Capt. Patrick Smith on the evolution of laser concerns

Todd Curtis BBC interview on Virgin Atlantic event 14 February 2016

Todd Curtis BBC interview 24 November 2015

Todd Curtis BBC interview 1 June 2011

Laser threats to aircraft -- Revised: 15 February 2016