An Oregon man pleaded not guilty on Monday to pointing a high-power laser beam at two different aircraft earlier this month, despite admitting after his arrest to laser strikes at 25 airliners in the past.
The police mugshot of security guard Stephen F. Bukucs put a face to a surge of similar anonymous incidents that put pilots at risk, not only at Portland International Airport, but across the country.
"This year through the end of August 2013, we've received 125 reports" of laser strikes, Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the Port of Portland, told ABC News. "Last calendar year we had 100 reports and then in 2011 we had 51. So we've seen an increase, which is following a national trend."
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) data shows that the number of laser incidents across the country rose almost ten-fold between 2006 and 2011, from 384 to a record 3,591. The problem became so pervasive that last year, when 3,482 cases were recorded, accidentally shining a laser at an aircraft became a federal crime, punishable by a fine of up to $11,000. And intentionally shooting a laser at a plane carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
"Many high-powered lasers can completely incapacitate pilots who are trying to fly safely to their destinations and may be carrying hundreds of passengers," the FAA website notes.
While the beams may appear small on the ground, the illuminations expand by the time it reaches the cockpit and can temporarily blind a pilot, experts said. In some instances, retinal damage has been recorded.
The FBI reported last week that the New York area has seen a dramatic 17% increase in incidents of lasers pointed at planes, with 54 reported at LaGuardia, 18 at Newark and 17 at JFK already this year.
While no charges were reported this month in connection with the most recent New York incidents, the FBI's investigation of Bukucs and his eventual arrest may serve as a warning.
"Until we send a draconian enough message to the entire country, including the yahoos who somehow think they're funny, that this is being taken seriously, we will continue to see this," said John Nance, aviation analyst for ABC World News, who thinks the fines and sentences should be increased.
"It's going to continue with pilots being permanently blinded and permanently imperiled," he added. "It really needs to be a really clear, indelible message: 20 years in prison -- your life is over."