Canada uses social media to curb laser attacks on planes

Calls to ban hand-held lasers that endanger aircraft crew and passengers are ramping up, and the federal government is turning to social media for help.

#NotABrightIdea: 590 offences reported to Transport Canada last year

A photo released by Transport Canada illustrates the hazard laser pointers present to pilots during takeoffs and landings. The federal government is reminding people of the danger laser pointer pose, and the steep penalties for abusing them. (Transport Canada)

A blinding flash sears your eyeballs. The room darkens, shapes seem fluid, what made sense before is now just a jumble of barely visible objects. Everything's an eerie green.

This is flash blindness, and it hurts. Someone shot a laser at your eyeballs.

It's hilarious, though, right? A real knee-slapper. Comedic gold. C'mon, amiright?

But when the person blinded by the laser is operating a 63,000-kilogram tube with a couple of hundred people inside?

Or maybe, just maybe, it's someone's wife, or husband, mom or dad, brother and sister being blinded. Someone they love more than they love themselves.

It almost feels like being punched in the face.— York Regional Police Const. Chris Duffield

To the most people, it sounds mind-numbingly stupid. But to a very, wee, little, godforsaken group of people, there's some form of humour in it. We've all done some regrettable things as kids, especially teenagers (not assigning the blame here), but man, oh, man it's hard to get this one.

When that hideous green light hits the retinas, "it almost feels like being punched in the face," says York Regional Police Const. Chris Duffield.

In the police chopper, Duffield is like a spotter. He keeps an eye on fleeing cars, or, say, some guy running through a field because he just shot a laser at a police helicopter. 

"Imagine someone with a bright flashbulb coming and taking a picture of you in a dark room," he adds. "It's like completely blackness."

Not your dollar-store lasers

There are news stories dating back more than a decade, when uber-cheap laser pointer made in China picked up sales steam in corner stores.

It was cool to have. If the teacher turned her back, you could use it to confuse her. Bored in class? Wake up your buddy up with a laser to the eye.

But these aren't like those dollar-store lasers. Military grade lasers are available. It just so happens most of those incidents occur near airports, where pilots and planes (not to mention the passengers in them) are susceptible to some guy who briefly left his mom's basement to shoot a laser at them. 

A laser pointer like this can shoot a beam over eight kilometres. (FAA)

Capt. Ian Smith, head of the Air Canada Pilots Association, wants them put on the list of banned weapons. That would allow border agents and police to seize lasers that are being shone on planes in Canadian airspace.

Crews reported 590 laser attacks to Transport Canada last year, up more than 17 per cent from the year before. Smith said the numbers prove public education isn't working. 

Last year the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recorded more than 7,700 "laser illuminations." From January to April of 2015, there were 1,413 incidents. This year, in that same period, there have been more than 2,100 laser incidents. 


So, along with media and corporate partners, Transport Minister Marc Garneau kicked off a social-media based campaign Monday to raise awareness around the issue. They've even got their a hashtag, #NotABrightIdea, that you can tweet if you happen to see one of these almost inexplicably stupid acts. 

People with lasers are, according to Garneau's press conference, even targeting small, single-engine planes that are flying low, often over populated areas. 

Garneau said the previous government's education effort didn't go far enough and wasn't having any noticeable effect. 

"For a pilot of an aircraft flying over populated areas, the consequences can be very serious," Garneau said.

He stressed that the RCMP and local police will increase enforcement, and that offenders face up to a $100,000 fine, five years in prison, or both. 

Other jurisdictions have as gone so far as to ban the sale of laser pointers. When asked if he'd consider a ban in Canada, Garneau said, "We will evaluate whether our attempt to re-educate Canadians is successful."

Some major airports, especially Heathrow in London, continue to experience many difficulties. 

Airports and airlines are having to deal with increasingly busy skies. Drone sales are at a record high, and regulations in many places have fallen far behind.


  • An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that people found guilty of laser attacks face a fine of up to $900,000. In fact, the maximum fine is $100,000.
    May 25, 2016 12:43 PM ET