Rehman Chishti is Member of Parliament for Gillingham and Rainham.
Scarcely a day seems to go by without another incident in our skies. Pilots, responsible for planes carrying hundreds of people, are being attacked on a regular basis by those foolishly shining a light in their eyes from the ground.
Ten years ago, only a handful of these laser attacks occurred. Today, thousands of incidents are occurring every single year on our civilian aircraft. Last month one laser pen attack was so bad that a New York bound flight had to return to Heathrow after its co-pilot became seriously ill.
They present a real danger, especially during the critical take-off and landing time. At this point any distraction could be deadly. These misused laser pens distract and can cause temporary blindness, dazzling the pilot.
Some of them – coloured red and of very low power – do not present a significant danger, and as ‘laser pointers’ are commonly used for presentations and in the classroom. The real danger lies in the high powered lasers. These are usually green or blue in colour and have fewer legitimate, non-essential uses (such as astronomy) and can be up to 1800 times more powerful. It is these laser pens which can cause severe injuries, with irreversible damage to eyesight – or even serious burns.
Through technological advances, more powerful lasers are becoming available in smaller and cheaper forms. What would have once required a warehouse, through its size and bulk, can now fit into a pocket and cost only a few pounds to buy. These laser pens, manufactured abroad, are easily and cheaply obtainable online. Although Trading Standards may have the power to remove lasers with power above one milliwatt from sale, they can still be bought with minimal checks.
Such laser pointers, which often come in the shape of a pen or on a keyring, may appear to be toys or novelty items. Yet many people do not realise their potential as very damaging weapons. Sadly, in the last few years, 47 children have suffered permanent eye damage, and even blindness, from laser pens bought as toys. There are no treatments to reverse this life altering damage.
My investigations has shown that it is not just civilian aircraft that have been targeted. Police helicopters and Royal Air Force pilots are being attacked on a regular basis. In the last five years there were 470 attacks on military helicopters, and 117 on police helicopters in the last two.
And aviation is not the only victim. There are also many incidences of attacks on trains and cars. Train drivers alone have been hit more than 300 times in the past five years. These are particularly dangerous because unlike pilots, train drivers work alone and have no one to back them up if things go wrong.
It only requires seconds for a vehicle to crash on a motorway; a much shorter time than the recovery from being even mildly dazzled by a laser.
So what can be done to reduce the danger to our transport system?
I believe that we need to take urgent action to curtail the availability of these dangerous high powered laser pens. Without action, it is not a matter of whether a serious or fatal accident will occur, but when. So in order to safeguard peoples’ lives and increase the security of our transportation networks, I have recently introduced a Bill into Parliament to declare high powered laser pens prohibited items.
If successful, this Bill would prohibit possession of lasers with a strength greater than one milliwatt, and the legal consequences would be a maximum of four years in prison and a £5,000 fine (the same as for an adult carrying a knife).
Although it is currently an offence to target aircraft with a laser, this does not address the crux of the problem: namely the easy availability of laser pens.
These are difficult to prosecute, however, not least because of the distances involved (the Virgin flight forced to turn back on 14 February was flying at 8,000 feet when the incident occurred).
Although the number of reported laser attacks has increased, the number of convictions for directing or shining a light to endanger aircraft have fallen.
Latest figures report that, under Article 222 of the 2009 Air Navigation Order, which prohibits shining a light to distract the pilot of an aircraft, only 18 people were convicted in 2014. This compares to 48 in 2011, and a total of only 141 convictions since the law came into force in 2010. This is clearly not providing the necessary punishment or deterrent.
The fact that they are so easily attainable and can cause such immense harm, shows why we need to review the existing measures in place. I hope that the Government will consider strengthening the law to make these super strength lasers prohibited items before a fatal incident occurs.