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Laser laws: A BALPA victory

by Steve Landells BALPA Flight Safety Specialist

It’s been a long time coming, and there have been many bumps in the road, but finally we are getting somewhere when it comes to lasers. For years BALPA pilots have been highlighting the dangers posed by lasers and calling for stringent laws to tackle the growing problem. And in just one month’s time, new laws will finally be in place and enforceable. 

The route here has taken some large meanders along the way. You may remember this time last year we were getting excited because it looked like there would be an acceptance at the highest levels of government that lasers were dangerous to aircraft and would be tackled through the introduction of a specific law.

We had been working on this for a long time. It was 11 years ago that Captain Martin Drake (Chair of the BALPA Security Committee) first stated that lasers were a serious issue for pilots and many people refused to listen. Fortunately, the aviation police recognised this as a threat as well and together we convinced the CAA to organise a Laser Committee. This committee was disbanded by the CAA in 2014 but we continued to push – along with Aviation Policing and the National Counter Terrorism Policing headquarters, and more recently with the re-formed UK Laser Working Group – to get more stringent rules in place so to finally see some progress was a great relief. 

While this bill was not perfect, it was a good first step. The Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill was primarily about electric cars and air travellers’ rights but, vitally, it had a tiny bit about how it would now no longer be necessary to prove that an aircraft was endangered for a prison sentence to be imposed on someone who decided it was clever to blind pilots with a laser when they were coming in to land.

We wrote copious briefing notes to MPs, appeared regularly in the papers and spent many hours in television studios, before Martin and I were called to parliament to give evidence in front of a House of Commons committee. This was going really, really well… right up until the point when the election was called, at which time all outstanding bills – including ours – were dropped.

To say we – and the police – were disappointed would be an understatement, especially as, by extending the Queen’s Speech to two years, there was apparently no prospect of us getting anything in front of parliament in the near future. A little thing called Brexit seemed to be taking up an inordinate amount of time.

We had previously sent our concerns about the lack of restrictions on importing, selling and possessing lasers to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and this body later became our only source of hope to make a difference. So, it was back to that department, albeit in the knowledge that its ability to stop this menace was extremely limited, but anything was better than nothing.

Then, in mid-December 2017 something changed. In fact, a few things changed, including personnel, attitudes and a need for the Government to be seen to be taking positive action. All of a sudden, we were told there might be some parliamentary time to look at the issue, which did, after all, have wide cross-party support. We jumped at this opportunity and were very pleasantly surprised when we were informed that the minister would be announcing a stand-alone Laser Misuse (Vehicles) Bill, which would be debated in the House of Lords early in the new year. However, we were concerned that this was just a flash in the pan, so we made plenty of comments in the media along the lines of ‘most welcome but need to wait and see what the detail is’.

The bill had its second reading and committee discussion in the House of Lords and eventually made its way to the Commons. I was in the House of Lords for the committee debate and it was gratifying to see passionate and informed statements made in support from all sides of the house, including, of course, by our own Honorary President, Lord Monks, and Honorary Vice-President Lord Balfe. We are very pleased with it and while we would still like to see more – especially around increased police powers – this is a big improvement on the original, aborted bill.

The finishing line was within sight but BALPA didn’t let up. We continued to brief MPs, ministers and Lords. We were there ready to push if required. And then, on 10th of May this year we heard the news we’d been waiting for. The bill was given Royal Assent and will come in to force on 10th of July. 

But even now the work isn’t over, indeed in many ways it’s only just begun. BALPA remains committed to monitoring the implementation and enforcement of this new law. And our efforts to help educate the public about the law change will continue. Now that all vehicle drivers (including trains, lorries & cars) are given protection by this law we need everybody who is affected by a laser to report it – that is the only way that we will be able to get high profile prosecutions and jail sentences for offenders which, in turn, should act as a significant deterrent to others.

Our success on lasers gave many of us a huge sense of achievement and should pave the way to reducing, or even removing, this significant flight safety hazard. Having said that, the proof is in the pudding and we won’t rest until the laser threat is a thing of the past.