Aviation Safety: FAA Should Strengthen Efforts to Address the Illegal Practice of Intentionally Aiming Lasers at Aircraft [Reissued with revisions on Aug. 26, 2022]

GAO-22-104664 Published: Aug 18, 2022. Publicly Released: Aug 18, 2022.
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Fast Facts

Aiming a laser at an aircraft can disorient pilots and is a federal crime. In recent years, laser incidents have increased—there were a record 9,723 incidents reported in 2021.

Identifying those involved remains difficult. To support incident investigations, FAA asks pilots to complete a lengthy, voluntary questionnaire. But it only received responses for 12% of incidents one recent year.

FAA and law enforcement previously had an interagency working group to address laser safety, but the group disbanded in 2015.

We recommended that FAA improve its efforts to collect and share information with law enforcement and reestablish the working group.

Note: This text was updated to fix an error in the number of laser incidents.

Laser incidents reported to the FAA by pilots and crewmembers, 2010-2021

A graph showing the number of laser incidents reported to the FAA each year from 2010 to 2021.

Reissued with Revisions Aug 26, 2022
Reissued with revisions on August 26, 2022. Revised August 26, 2022, to correct the number of laser incidents reported in 2021 to 9,723 and the upper range of the civil penalties to $27,338 on the Highlights page.
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Highlights

What GAO Found

Aiming a laser at an aircraft can distract or disorient pilots and is a federal crime. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigates laser incidents, pursues civil penalties, and assists the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and U.S. Attorneys with investigations. Given the nature of laser incidents, FAA and federal law enforcement face difficulties identifying those involved. However, they have taken some enforcement actions, resulting in penalties ranging from $50 to $27,338 and sentences of up to 51 months, according to GAO analysis. To support incident investigations, FAA asks that pilots complete an incident questionnaire upon landing. However, FAA received responses for about 12 percent of the 8,221 laser incidents that occurred over a recent one-year period from 2020 to 2021. Reasons identified by FAA and others for the low response rate include the length of the questionnaire and its voluntary nature. Further, FAA does not consistently share collected information with law enforcement.

In 2016, Congress required FAA to report quarterly on laser incidents, including data on civil and criminal actions. However, GAO found FAA's reports to be incomplete. For example, GAO's analysis shows 44 prosecutions from July 2016 through September 2020, when FAA reported only four. FAA officials said they do not routinely request data on the status of actions from other agencies and face challenges, such as access to this data. By not routinely seeking updates from agencies, FAA does not provide Congress with a complete picture of laser incident investigations and enforcement actions as required.

Example of the Effects of a Laser Pointer Aimed at an Aircraft Cockpit

FAA, FBI, and the Food and Drug Administration, which has regulatory authority over lasers, each conduct outreach to educate the public about laser incidents. These agencies were involved in an interagency group to address laser safety concerns until 2015 when the group dissolved. Since then, laser incidents have increased and identifying subjects remains difficult. FAA is well positioned to lead an interagency effort to explore re-establishing this group, given FAA's responsibility for the safety of the national airspace.

Why GAO Did This Study

FAA considers each laser incident an in-flight emergency, because of the potential for an accident and adverse effects of lasers on pilots. FAA data show the number of incidents in 2021 was the highest on record, with 9,723 incidents reported—an increase of about 42 percent from 2020.

GAO was asked to review federal efforts related to addressing laser incidents. This report examines, among other things: (1) the extent to which FAA and other agencies take action against those who point lasers at aircraft and challenges to investigations and reporting, and (2) public outreach efforts FAA and other agencies take to deter laser incidents.

GAO reviewed relevant statutes and regulations and assessed FAA's actions against GAO's work on managing for results. GAO analyzed FAA and Department of Justice data from July 2016 through September 2020 on enforcement actions and interviewed 15 aviation and local law enforcement entities to obtain a range of perspectives.

Reissued with revisions on Aug. 26, 2022

Reissued with revisions on August 26, 2022. Revised August 26, 2022, to correct the number of laser incidents reported in 2021 to 9,723 and the upper range of the civil penalties to $27,338 on the Highlights page.
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Recommendations

GAO is recommending that FAA determine what information is most useful for investigating laser incidents and how best to collect and share it with law enforcement and that FAA routinely seek investigation and enforcement data from agencies for reporting to Congress; and explore re-establishing an interagency working group to collaborate on laser incident outreach. FAA concurred with these recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Federal Aviation Administration The FAA Administrator should determine what information from pilots and crewmembers would be most useful for investigating laser incidents, and how best to collect the information and to share it with law enforcement. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Aviation Administration The FAA Administrator should improve its quarterly reports to Congress on laser incidents by routinely seeking information from other agencies on related federal investigation and enforcement actions and disclosing, in those reports, any limitations with the data. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Federal Aviation Administration The FAA Administrator should work with FBI and FDA to explore re-establishing an interagency working group on outreach to educate the public on the hazards of lasers and the illegality of aiming lasers at aircraft. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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