The FBI is making a limited-time offer at 12 of its field offices across the nation from Albuquerque and Los Angeles to New York City and Washington, D.C.: During the next 60 days, if you help them catch someone aiming a laser pointer at a plane, the FBI is offering rewards of up to $10,000.
"If you think this is a prank, I can assure you it is not," John Kitzinger, chief of the FBI Violent Crimes Unit, said in prepared remarks today. "This is a felony—a federal crime—for which you can be placed in federal prison for up to five years."
That penalty became federal law in 2012. Last March, a man in California was sentenced to 30 months in prison for pointing a laser at a small jet.
The FBI, along with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Line Pilots Association International, a union representing nearly 50,000 pilots, is also starting a campaign warning of the dangers of pointing laser points at pilots. The campaign will warn the public about the threat of lasers to aircraft via public service announcements and billboards.
Powerful lasers can temporarily blind pilots. The FBI says pilots have compared it to a camera flash going off in a car traveling at night. But pilots keep cockpits dark when flying at night so they can see the instruments clearly and there is no ambient light from street lights, says Bruce Landsberg, president of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association's Air Safety Foundation. He says that makes the effects more disorienting for pilots and there is nothing pilots can do to prepare for something like this.
"This is sort of like people shooting at the airplane, except they're using light instead of bullets," he says.
Landsberg says the federal agencies are doing the right thing by aggressively going after the people who do it. In a statement, the FAA says reported laser incidents have gone up by more than 10 times since it started collecting data in 2006. Last year, there were 3,960 reported incidents.