American Airlines Plane Struck by Laser

Cockpit laser strikes can flash-blind pilots.

— -- An American Airlines jetliner was struck by a laser Tuesday night as it prepared to land in San Diego, the airline said.

The Airbus A321, with 174 aboard, landed safely a few minutes later, according to American Airlines. Though paramedics were called, the captain declined treatment, as did the crew.

Because it can flash-blind pilots, beaming a laser at a cockpit is a federal crime carrying a potential 5-year prison sentence and $250,000 fine.

“Our nightmare scenario here is getting a pilot -- either one or two pilots, however many there are in the cockpit -- so flash-blinded that he or she can't land the airplane, can't even see to fly it,” said ABC News aviation consultant and airline pilot John Nance. “I really can’t emphasize enough how serious a federal crime this is.”

Yet laser strikes remain a pernicious problem: In 2014, pilots reported more than 3,800 strikes nationwide, according to the Federal Aviation Administration, and experts say reports are continuing to climb.

Identifying, arresting and prosecuting rogue laser operators can be difficult. But if a police chopper spots a laser, officers can track operators from the air and relay coordinates to law enforcement on the ground.