POLOKO TAU

A NATIONAL AIR traffic authority yesterday raised their concerns regarding the recent rise in laser beam attacks, described as a potential hazard to aircraft safety.

The Air Traffic and Navigation Services (ATNS) reported that 181 incidents related to laser interference were recorded from January 1, 2010 to February 29, 2012.

The highest number of incidents were reported at Cape Town International Airport, which recorded 106. Lanseria Airport had 21 incidents, while OR Tambo International and East London airports had 14 each.“Notable incidents generally involve people directing powerful laser beams at aircraft on final approach. Other low-flying aircraft such as police and ambulance or rescue helicopters are also targeted |at times,” ATNS spokesman Percy Morokane said.

“There have also been incidents where lasers were directed at air traffic control towers. The fact that these lasers can startle the crew in the critical phase of flight, which is at the time when everyone has to be buckled in, all electronic devices off, and the cabin lights dimmed to allow for better visibility outside, makes these events serious.”

Morokane said a serious aircraft accident could occur in the “event that a pilot loses control of the aircraft momentarily due to being blinded by these lights”.

While many laser interference incidents had been recorded over the years, Morokane said there had not been any prosecutions. He said, however, there had been notable arrests in the period under review.

“The first was during the World Cup in 2010 at a fan park in Durban.”

One case is currently pending in a Bloemfontein court. It involves two people who were arrested during the ANC centenary celebrations for shining lasers at aircraft.

Morokane said an aviation security committee comprising the ATNS, the SA Civil Aviation Authority, Airports Company South Africa, the SA Air Force and the police were working on identifying steps such as raising awareness among the public to address these concerns.

“Additionally, laws are being looked into where punitive measures and sanctions are to be reviewed and strengthened,” Morokane added.

He said a seminar on laser interference in aviation was hosted last year by Eurocontrol in Brussels, Belgium, where groups with a vested interest considered strict measures to reduce the growing threat of unauthorised laser interference to aviation.

Morokane said legislation required that all owners of laser devices have a permit, but illegal laser pointers were being imported without permits and sold on the black market at outlets like trinket stores and fleamarkets.

He warned that people who buy them and direct them at aircraft could face criminal charges.