WASHINGTON – A cluster of laser beam strikes on commercial airplanes over New Jersey Wednesday pushed the total number of attacks over the U.S. to more than twice the daily average.
Pilots of 35 flights — including a U.S. Coast Guard plane over Ocean City — reported incidents, according to a Federal Aviation Administration statement Thursday.
Eleven occurred on flights headed for Newark Liberty International Airport or LaGuardia, two of New York’s busiest, from 9 p.m. to 10:30 p.m., according to an e-mail from the FAA. The attacks occurred in a range of locations suggesting more than one person was involved.
“It’s a big deal,” said John Cox, a former airline captain and president of Washington-based Safety Operating Systems, an aviation consultant. “I have a real problem understanding why anyone would shine a laser on an aircraft.”
Laser strikes on planes and helicopters have surged more than 10-fold in less than a decade, reaching 2,751 cases this year through July 3, according to FAA data. Last year, the FAA reported 3,894 cases. Incidents tend to occur as crews prepare to land, which is one of the busiest and most critical times during a flight, Cox said in an interview.
So far this year, airplanes are being struck by lasers about 15 times a day, less than half of Wednesday’s total.
The FBI’s Newark office has opened an investigation of the cases near Newark, Special Agent Celeste Danzi said. Intentionally shining a laser at an aircraft is a federal offense punishable by as much as five years in prison, Danzi said.
Elsewhere in the U.S., cases occurred near cities in 10 states from Daytona Beach, Florida, to Oakland, California, the FAA said.
Lasers, from high-powered industrial models to devices used as toys, can temporarily blind pilots and damage the eye, according to government research. Some powerful models are available for less than $100 online.
The FAA and FBI have been trying to ramp up enforcement efforts. The FBI last year began offering as much as $10,000 for information leading to the arrest of people involved.
American Airlines Group Inc., United Continental Holdings Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc. and Republic Airways Holdings Inc. were among carriers involved in the New Jersey incidents, according to the FAA.
Delta Flight 504 from Atlanta to Newark landed normally after the Boeing Co. 717-200’s cockpit was illuminated by a laser beam, spokesman Morgan Durrant said in an email.
“Delta will do everything to assist with the investigation and including the apprehension of perpetrators by law enforcement,” Durrant said.
American Airlines Flight 966 from Miami to Newark, a Boeing 737-800, was struck while flying at 3,000 feet (914 meters) about 15 miles south of the airport, according to FAA.
American spokesman Ross Feinstein and United spokeswoman Mary Clark in emails referred inquiries to the FAA. Phone or email messages seeking comment from the other U.S. airlines weren’t returned.
All but one of the New Jersey strikes were made with a green laser, according to the FAA’s statement. Crews from different flights reported lights from either the left or right sides of their aircraft.