Ban handheld lasers, says pilots association president

The head of the Air Canada Pilots Association wants Ottawa to put handheld lasers on its list of prohibited weapons, which would allow police and border agencies to seize devices that are increasingly being used to target crew while in the air, Capt. Ian Smith says.

More than 520 'laser attacks' in Canadian airspace last year, federal data shows

The head of the Air Canada Pilots Association is calling on Ottawa to put sophisticated laser pointers on the list of prohibited weapons. The number of laser attacks on Canadian aircraft is on the rise, federal data shows. (Transport Canada)

The head of the Air Canada Pilots Association wants Ottawa to put handheld lasers on its list of prohibited weapons.

That would allow police and border agencies to seize devices that are increasingly being used to target crew while in Canadian airspace, Capt. Ian Smith says.

Crew reported 590 so-called laser attacks to Transport Canada last year, an uptick of more than 17 per cent from 2014, federal data shows. It's a more than three-fold increase since 2009, in which Ottawa's Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System registered roughly 120 such reports.

Those numbers prove that public education is not working, Smith told CBC News.

"Most of these attacks … are usually in what we call the critical phases of our flight — the takeoff mode and the landing mode," the pilot association president said. "And if the education process [is] ineffective … then I think it only leaves us one other avenue."

That's the criminal justice system, he says.

5-year prison sentence, $100K fine

Police say that an offender could face criminal charges including mischief endangering life. There are also separate penalties under the Aeronautics Act that come with a maximum five-year prison sentence and a fine that tops out at $100,000.

It's unclear how many people have been caught in the past year. Peel Regional Police, which has jurisdiction including the Toronto-area Pearson airport, could not provide statistics.

Smith said that a small number of people may accidentally target a plane, but most incidents happen during landing and takeoff, which suggests that it's usually on purpose.

Green lasers seem to be the most popular, Smith said. They're also the most distracting to pilots because the eye absorbs more of that colour of light.

"These [lasers are] a little more sophisticated in nature," he said. "A lot of them have been purchased over the internet and imported into Canada."

The more powerful laser pointers can put pilots and passengers at risk.

Veteran pilot Capt. Ian Smith says laser attacks on planes typically happen when an aircraft is landing or taking off, the two most critical times during a flight. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

"A focused beam of light directed at an aircraft's cockpit after dark can cause varying degrees of vision problems for flight crew," Const. Rachel Gibbs said in an email. "And [it] may affect their ability to operate an aircraft safely."

That happened on Sunday when a New York-bound plane returned to the United Kingdom after it was targeted by a laser beam and one of the air crew felt sick, the Guardian reported.

It's hard for police to catch someone, Smith said, largely because investigators rely on aircraft crew to pinpoint the beam's origin — and the crew may have had their vision compromised by the light.

Harm to vision

The veteran pilot has experienced a laser attack himself, after a crew member's vision was temporarily harmed on a flight to Toronto.

Smith had to take control of the landing.

"It was when I looked over to him that I could see the green light that was being reflected off the cockpit window," Smith said. "He looked at me and  said ... 'I'm having trouble seeing out of my right eye.'"

Smith said he's hopeful that banning the devices will limit the number of lasers coming into Canada.

"We cannot be nice about this anymore, because when we're flying an aircraft we have 200 people behind us — innocent people," Smith said. "You can't just give someone a little slap on the wrist and send him back home again.

"It's not working."