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McCarran ranks high in lasers-pointed-at-planes incidents

The Federal Aviation Administration has placed McCarran International Airport among the nation’s top airports for incidents involving lasers pointed at airplanes and helicopters in 2010.

McCarran ranked No. 5, with 72 such incidents.

The airport is the nation’s seventh-busiest.

Many of the reported incidents involved airliners in the midst of takeoffs or landings, critical phases of flight when pilots need to be at their most alert. Pointing lasers at cockpits can temporarily blind pilots or even permanently damage their eyesight. In some instances, pilots have had to relinquish control of their aircraft to another pilot.

Los Angeles International Airport came in at No. 1, with 108 reports of lasers directed at aircraft. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport ranked No. 2, with 98, followed by airports in Phoenix and San Jose, Calif., both with 80.

Overall, the number of incidents nationally in which people pointed lasers at planes and helicopters nearly doubled last year, from 1,527 incidents in 2009 to 2,836 incidents in 2010, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called the laser incidents “an unacceptable risk to passenger safety.”

The lasers involved in the latest reports are many times more powerful than the laser pointers typically used by lecturers. Stargazers use them at night to point to celestial objects. The introduction of green lasers, which are more powerful and more easily seen than red lasers, has also fueled sales.

FAA began keeping track of the incidents about five years ago, as Internet sales of new, more powerful hand-held lasers began to increase. There were about 300 incidents reported in 2005.

A report from the Homeland Security Newswire noted that the National Transportation Safety Board increased its reviews of laser-related incidents after a 1995 case in which an outdoor laser show temporarily blinded a Southwest Airlines first officer shortly after takeoff at McCarran.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt urged pilots to immediately report laser incidents to air traffic controllers, who can then report the incidents to police. It’s a violation of federal law to shine a laser at an aircraft. Some cities and states also have laws making it illegal to shine lasers at aircraft.

In 2009, an Orange, Calif., man was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for aiming a laser at two Boeing jets as the passenger planes were about to land at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, Calif. A Parsippany, N.J., man received two years’ probation in 2006 after admitting to shining a laser at a plane approaching Teterboro Airport that temporarily blinded the two pilots.

Other airports reporting high numbers of laser-pointing incidents include Philadelphia, 66; Oakland, Calif., 55; Honolulu, 47; San Francisco, 39; Denver and Newark, N.J., both 38; Tucson, Ariz., 37; Miami and Salt Lake City, both 36; Portland, Ore., and Ontario, Calif., both 32; Burbank, Calif., Orange County, Calif., and Baltimore, each 31, and Seattle, 26.

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