San Jose’s Mineta Airport may not be the busiest in the country. That honor goes to airports in Denver, Atlanta, or Los Angeles. San Jose’s airport is, however, one of the most dangerous, at least potentially.
Security is great. The new terminal is great. The problem is what happens outside the airport, which affects the planes’ take-offs and landings. More and more incidents of hand-held lasers being pointed at the planes are being reported. San Jose is tied with Phoenix for third place in the country, after LAX and O’Hare, with 80 incidents reported last year. That’s more than twice as many as Denver’s 38, and Denver is the 10th busiest airport in the world.
Lasers pointed at aircraft can blind pilots temporarily during critical take-off and landing stages. In some cases, pilots were forced to hand over control of the aircraft to their co-pilots.
The problem is that it is so hard to catch the perpetrators—much harder than finding explosive materials in a tube of toothpaste or a pair of boxers. Laser pointers are easily accessible, and are popular among star-gazers and other hobbyists. They can be used from the convenience of the perp’s backyard, and a couple of seconds is all that is needed to blind an aircraft.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, there were 2,836 incidents nationwide in 2010, up sharply from 300 just five years earlier. Pilots are urged to inform control towers immediately when they encounter a laser beam pointed at them.
Undoubtedly, at least some of the incidents were unintentional. A budding astronomer pointing out Jupiter to his friends inadvertently crossed paths with an aircraft. Nevertheless, even then laser pointers pose what Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood calls “an unacceptable risk to passenger safety,” at Mineta or anywhere else in the country.