Is Your Holiday Light Display Dangerous To Air Traffic?

Problems caused by holiday laser lights have reached an all-time high, according to the FAA. Does your display poses a problem?

The front-yard laser light displays that have grown in popularity over the last few years spread a lot of cheer. But did you know that if they’re mis-aimed, they’re dangerous to airplane pilots and their passengers?

“The extremely concentrated beams of laser lights reach much farther than you might realize,” stated the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in a recent warning.

This problem reached an all-time high in 2021. As of November 22, the FAA received 8,550 laser strike reports, up from 6,852 in 2020. (This number reflects a combined total of strikes from holiday lights and handheld laser pointers.) In some instances, the FAA says it imposed civil penalties of up to $11,000 per violation.

How Do Holiday Lights Affect Air Traffic?

Laser lights can affect pilot vision.

“Suppose a stray laser beam misses the home and hits an aircraft flight deck,” says Murray Huling, vice president of regulatory affairs for the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association. “In that case, it can cause damage to the pilot’s eyes or cause night blindness for an extended amount of time, either of which could be catastrophic if the aircraft is in the critical phase of flight, such as landing and close to the ground.”

The problem has caused missed landing approaches and medical problems for pilots, who reported close to 200 laser injuries since 2010.

“We’ve had pilots that have to seek medical attention. It’s a serious problem,” says Capt. Bill Cason, an international 767 captain and security chairman for the Independent Pilots Association. “The fear is, it’s just a matter of time before we have a really serious accident or incident because of a laser strike.”

Sometimes, the ATC reroutes traffic around an area known for laser activity. “That causes distractions and delays, and creates a hazard that didn’t exist before,” Cason says. “The problem is, it’s increasing every year.” It’s increased by more than 300 percent in the last decade, from 2,773 in 2010 to 8,550 in 2021.

Can One Home Really Present a Problem?

“Absolutely,” Huling says. “It only takes one beam to cause a safety issue for aircraft.”

This is especially true if your home is near a flight path or an airport. “The problem is that it’s a distraction,” says Cason. “When you’re in critical phases of flight, like takeoff and landing, all of your energy and attention is toward flying the aircraft, so any distraction could be a really big safety hazard.”

Most laser incidents happen when the plane is below 10,000 feet, and nearly a quarter when an aircraft is below 3,000 feet.

The problem appears to be more prevalent in November and December, and on Friday and Saturday nights. Among U.S. states, California leads the incident rate with more than 11,000 laser reports in the last 10 years, followed by Texas, Florida and Arizona.

Luckily, the solution is simple. Just make sure your holiday laser lights stay focused on the structure you’re trying to light, and not going out into the sky.

What Are Dangerous Lights vs. Acceptable Lights?

All laser lights can cause a safety issue if they shine into the sky. “There is no ‘acceptable’ laser when they light up a flight deck,” Huling says. “All holiday lasers are okay as long as they are installed correctly and not missing their target.”

Traditional incandescent and LED holiday lights don’t pose a problem to aircraft.

How Do I Know If My Holiday Lights Are a Problem?

Check the aim of your laser lights. Make sure they’re pointing where they should, not up into the sky. When in doubt, err on the side of caution.

If the FAA determines your lights are a problem, they’ll first ask you to adjust them or turn them off. Anyone who doesn’t comply risks fines, as well as other civil and criminal penalties.

Same goes for anyone who purposefully aims a laser at an aircraft. This is a growing air safety problem, perhaps bigger than homeowners’ holiday laser lights, as well as a violation of federal law.

Karuna Eberl
Karuna writes about wildlife, nature, history and travel for magazines, newspapers and websites including National Geographic, National Parks, Discovery Channel, Atlas Obscura and the High Country News. She's also produced a number of independent films and directed the documentary The Guerrero Project, about the search for a sunken slave ship. She and her husband, Steve, wrote an award-winning guidebook to the Florida Keys and are currently completely renovating an abandoned house in a ghost town. She holds a B.A. in journalism and geology from the University of Montana. Member of OWAA, SATW.