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Pilots concerned as govt vote down high-powered laser bill

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association fear even more safety downgrades for members and the travelling public with the voting down today of a private bill to deal with the dangerous menace of laser strikes on aircraft and control towers.

The High Power Laser Pointers Offences and Penalties Bill, introduced by Clutha-Southland MP Hamish Walker, proposed to double the term of imprisonment for the offence from three months to six months, and double the maximum fine from $2000 to $4000 for the possession of high-power laser pointers.

Other amendments included allowing higher penalties under the Health Act 1956 for breaches around the supply of laser pointers.

Commercial pilot and NZALPA spokesperson Tim Robinson says increasingly New Zealand was becoming an outlier internationally for its less enlightened regulatory stance on the use of these devices in aviation.

“Scandinavian countries prohibit or highly regulate their use; the United Kingdom has increased penalties and widened regulatory scope; and, in the United States, both the Federal Aviation Authority and the Federal Bureau of Investigation takes such offences very seriously, with fines of up to $250,000 and five years in jail.

“Meanwhile, in New Zealand it remains a summary offence and very unlikely to attract the harshest penalty under the Crimes Act,” Tim says.

“This blow to aviation safety is compounded by the current proposal by state-owned Airways Corporation to slash air traffic management services from one-third of New Zealand’s airports, including Rotorua, Napier, Gisborne, New Plymouth and Invercargill.

“In this post-COVID-19 economy there is urgent activity to rebuild both the aviation and tourism markets, so making safety cuts like these to our air traffic management infrastructure while also preventing stronger legislation to prevent aircraft accidents and potential fatalities to proceed doesn’t make any sense, and is instead downright dangerous,” Tim says.

“Since 2014 there has been a 130 per cent increase in reported strikes on aircraft or into air traffic control towers. However, despite this continuing increase in the number of laser strikes on aircraft, the Government’s Civil Aviation Authority constantly tells our pilots and air traffic controllers that there is no need to change legislation, or to look at increasing fines or custodial sentencing as a deterrent.

“Like other countries, the New Zealand Government needs to take the very real threat of laser attacks on aircraft and control towers seriously, even considering raising their status as an offence equivalent to such acts as high jacking and bomb threats, collectively known as ‘acts of illegal interference’.

“Ironically New Zealand is a signatory to the UN Protocol on Blinding Laser Weapons, specifically during times of conflict, but civil aviation at home is not afforded the same attention – making the Government’s inaction almost as reckless as the laser-brandishing offenders themselves,” Tim says.

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