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Feds target laser threat to planes

By Karen Zautyk
Observer Correspondent 

You can call it a limited-time offer, but it’s being offered by the federal government, not a car dealership or mortgage company.

Until Aug. 31, the FBI is offering up to $10,000 “for information that leads to the arrest of any individual who aims a laser at aircraft.”

The reward, announced earlier this month, is part of a national effort to raise public awareness and to stop what has become an “dramatically” increasing danger, not only to pilots and passengers, but also people on the ground.

Many of our Observer towns are directly under the flight path for Newark Liberty Airport. At any given time, you can look skyward and see an aircraft coming in for a landing or on its outbound route. It’s more than a little frightening to realize that someone with a handheld laser could temporarily blind a pilot.

It has been happening, and with greater frequency. According to the FBI, “laser incidents on aircraft arriving and departing from Newark Liberty Airport have increased 14% over the past year.” Which is why the Essex  and Bergen County Prosecutors’ Offices are among those in New Jersey supporting the federal public awareness campaign.

The FBI and the Federal Aviation Administration began tracking laser strikes nationwide in 2005. Since then, the agency reported, “data show a more than 1,100% increase in the deliberate targeting of aircraft by people with handheld lasers.” It apparently is getting worse with each passing year.

In February, the FBI launched a pilot public awareness program through 12 field offices. Although the effort has shown “early signs of success in reducing the number of laser attacks in those 12 cities, the laser threat remains a problem on a much larger scale,” said Joseph Campbell, assistant director of the agency’s Criminal Investigative Division.

Authorities report that, in addition to commercial planes, laser targets have included law enforcement aircraft, media helicopters, military aircraft, medical evacuation and search-and-rescue aircraft.

“I can’t stress enough how dangerous and irresponsible it is to point a laser at an aircraft,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta, who pledged to “continue to partner with law enforcement to address this problem nationwide.”

It is a federal offense to knowingly aim the beam of a laser pointer at or in the flight path of any aircraft. Violators face up to five years in prison, and in the federal prison system, there is no parole.

The FBI notes that “thousands of laser attacks go unreported every year.”

If you have information about a laser incident, or see someone pointing a laser at an aircraft, the agency urges you to “call your local FBI field office or dial 911.” The field office for all Observer communities is the one in Newark, phone (973) 792- 3000.

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