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MP’s Bill could help solve the laser menace

by Captain Brendan O'Neal BALPA Chairman

Since 2014 there have been almost 6,500 police reports nationally involving laser pens. It is an issue that presents an everyday danger to airline pilots, so much so that the crew of a recent Virgin Atlantic flight, VS25 bound for New York, took the decision to return to Heathrow after reportedly being attacked with a laser shortly after take-off. It was not an isolated incident. More than half of British pilots say they have been attacked by lasers in the past year.

While commercial airline pilots have suffered the threat from lasers since the early 1990s, the problem has started to spread. The National Police Air Service, Air Ambulance pilots, police officers, emergency services, cars, trains and even ferries have all reported incidents.

Aircraft are attacked with lasers at an alarming rate and now with lasers of ever-increasing strength. Beams from military strength lasers distract or startle pilots at critical points in flight and also have increasing potential to cause physical injury. There is a threat to the general public too through the sale and availability of such laser pens. Seven year old Jonathan Marshall purchased a laser at a school fair using his own pocket money. He shone the laser into his eye for only a fraction of second and has been left with permanent damage to his retina. Things need to change.

It is an area where we have been very active on behalf of our members. We have been working with a number of agencies (including the CAA, the UK Flight Safety Committee and the Police) to address this issue. We have also explained the issue at great length to the Department for Transport, with the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin MP, and Aviation Minister Robert Goodwill MP accepting recent representations made by BALPA.

We were also delighted to hear from Rehman Chishti, Member of Parliament for Gillingham and Rainham, last week. Mr Chishti has been campaigning to make high powered laser pens prohibited items under the law. He has proposed a Bill in Parliament which would prohibit the possession of a laser pen of more than 1 milliwatt in strength, with the offence having the same sentence as carrying a knife.

This is a position we have been calling for regularly and we were happy to provide a letter of support for his private member’s Bill.

Pilots remain very concerned about the ease of access to lasers, the increasing power of the technology and the potential they have to cause injury. We believe that lasers should be specifically included in the offensive weapons legislation so that if someone is found to be carrying a laser without good reason then they are treated in the same way as if they are carrying a knife.

Shining a laser at an aircraft in an incredibly dangerous and foolish thing to do. It puts that aircraft, its crew and all the passengers on board at completely unnecessary risk. It is vital that people understand that if they endanger flights they will be prosecuted and could face serious penalties.