FAA: Maryland Laser Pointers Targeted Planes More Than 500 Times Between 2010 and 2020

Artistic depiction of a laser attack on an aircraft during an approach at night. Due to a potential blinding of pilots, laser attacks pose a serious threat to aviation safety and pilot health. Getty Images.

There were 534 reports of lasers being pointed at planes in Maryland between 2010 and 2020, according to federal data released last week.

There were 57,835 incidents of lasers being aimed at aircraft across the United States and territories in that ten-year period, according to the Federal Aviation Administration report.

Aiming a laser at an aircraft is a federal offense. FAA Administrator Steve Dickinson said in a release that “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.”

Yearly reports of lasers being aimed at aircraft topped out at 7,398 in 2016, according to FAA data. That figure dropped to 5,663 by 2018, but has been steadily increasing since then.

Reports of lasers aimed at aircraft increased in 2020 despite a lower number of flights due to the pandemic, according to the release. There were 6,842 laser strikes reported in 2020, up from 6,136 in 2019.

In 2020, there were 41 laser strikes in Maryland. So far this year, there have been 13 reported cases of lasers aimed at aircraft, nearly all at Baltimore-Washington International Airport; one incident has been reported this year in Frederick.

Shining a laser at an aircraft carries an FAA fine of up to $11,000 per violation and up to $30,800 for multiple incidents, according to the release. The FAA has issued $600,000 in fines since 2016, including $120,000 in 2021 alone. In addition to those civil fines, people who point lasers at planes can face federal criminal charges, according to the release.

Pointing a laser at an aircraft is also a misdemeanor under Maryland state law and carries a penalty of up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $2,500.

California had the highest number of reported laser strikes in the country over a 10-year period, with 11,198 reports. Maryland’s neighbors varied widely on how many strikes were reported: Pennsylvania had the fifth highest number in the country with 1,724 reported incidents; Virginia had 717 incidents; West Virginia had 168 incidents; and Delaware had just 94 incidents.

The District of Columbia had 396 incidents over the 10-year period, but also had the second highest number of laser strikes per 100,000 residents at 56.11. Only Hawaii had a higher number of laser strikes per capita with 63.71. By comparison, Maryland had 8.83 events per capita.

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Bennett Leckrone
Leckrone is a December 2019 graduate of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. He has interned at The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Columbus Dispatch, PennLive.com, The Dayton Daily News and The Troy Daily News. Leckrone is a Report for America corps member.