Pilots association warns of poor safety standards after harsher laser penalties bill voted down

A bill to increase the penalty for using laser pointers was rejected in parliament this week.
A bill to increase the penalty for using laser pointers was rejected in parliament this week. Photo credit: Getty.

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots Association (NZALPA) has expressed safety concerns over the voting down of a private members bill to deal with laser strikes on aircraft and control towers on Wednesday.

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.  

Commercial pilot and NZALPA spokesperson Tim Robinson said that Aotearoa was lagging behind other countries when it comes to restrictions on laser devices.

In the US, both the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) take laser device offences seriously, with offenders given fines of up to $250,000 and five years in jail.

"In New Zealand it remains a summary offence and very unlikely to attract the harshest penalty under the Crimes Act," Robinson said.  

According to NZALPA, there has been a 130 percent increase in reported laser strikes on aircraft or into air traffic control towers since 2014 .  

"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," Robinson said.   

Despite the increase in the number of laser strikes on aircraft, NZALPA says the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has been telling 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 hijacking and bomb threats, collectively known as 'acts of illegal interference'," Robinson said. 

While debating the introduction of the bill in parliament on Wednesday, Labour's Clare Curran agreed that laser use is a serious and potentially life threatening act. However, she said the current level of fines and penalties, and the low level of enforcement proves the strategy isn't working.

"Since there was a bill introduced and passed in this House in 2014 which provided for penalties by the then National Government, the introduction of penalties for the misuse of high-powered laser pointers has failed to have any effect," Curran said.

"Those instances have escalated dramatically and those penalties have not been applied at all, I think, in 2018-19, despite a record number of incidents."

Curran said stopping the devices from entering the country in the first place would be the best strategy to eliminate the problem.

National, ACT and Jami- Lee Ross voted in support of the bill, however it was put to bed with 63 votes against it coming from Labour, NZ First and the Green Party.