SA authority warns of increasing laser threat to aircraft safety
The number of incidents of laser lights being used against aircraft is increasing, and causing a threat to safety, the SA Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) said on Wednesday.
There had already been 170 incidents of a laser being pointed at an aircraft or at an air traffic control tower this year, said SACAA director Zakhele Thwala at a media briefing in Midrand.
At this rate, there would be more incidents than last year when there were 175, he said.
"There's a huge concern from the airline industry... on the huge increase of their use," Thwala said.
The laser lights were a distraction to both aircraft pilots and air traffic controllers. They were usually laser pointers, easily available in electronics stores for as little as R150.
Air Line Pilots' Association SA representative Capt Margaret Viljoen said the laser light incidents were often at lower altitudes, such as take-off and landing, which were critical times for flights.
They were particularly dangerous when it was dark, because the flashing light was even more distracting then.
"Laser illuminations can interfere with pilot vision, potentially impacting the safety of a flight," Viljoen said.
Council for Scientific and Industrial Research national laser centre manager Dr Ndumiso Cingo said that while there had not been an accident on record as caused by lasers, this might change in the future.
"These lasers are becoming more powerful and readily available, the chances of the lasers causing an incident are increasing," Cingo said.
Thwala said there was also the threat that the lights could cause permanent damage to the vision of pilots, affecting their ability to earn a livelihood.
Thwala believed that the people flashing lasers at planes were not trying to cause accidents.
"It may not be malicious but it is dangerous," he said.
While the act of using a laser against aircraft might just be a prank, he said perpetrators could face serious consequences if they were caught. The penalties included a fine or up to 10 years' imprisonment.
However, few people had been caught in the act of using a laser against aircraft so far. Thwala said only three people had been caught, one each in Durban, Johannesburg and Bloemfontein.
He said the person in Bloemfontein was caught because of the presence of the SA Air Force in the area. The person caught was a minor and eventually the charges were dropped.
The other cases in Durban and Johannesburg had dragged on in the courts and the SACAA had lost track of them, Thwala said.
Viljoen said some people could be flashing lasers at aircraft because they had seen on television fictional scenarios where an aircraft was brought down by them. Others were just bored and entertaining themselves.
"There's my opinion that it's one individual: he's got his beer and his laser pointer and that's his evening fun," Viljoen said.
The bulk of the laser incidents had occurred at Cape Town airport, but almost all airports in the country had been affected.
Thwala warned that the lasers were not only a threat to the aircraft, but to the communities around an airport where a crash could take place.
He said the SACAA would launch a public information campaign to educate the public on the hazards of flashing laser pointers at aircraft.