No one, it seems, is immune to the danger of laser beams aimed at commercial airplanes.
Not even Pope Francis.
In a statement released Wednesday, Alitalia said one of its crews plus those on “other aircraft” in the area “noticed a laser light from the ground” as the pontiff’s plane prepared to touch down in Mexico City.
Flight AZ4000 — which had just come from Havana, Cuba, where Francis met with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill — managed to land safely last Friday, in time to kick off the Pope’s five-day trip to Mexico.
No crew members or passengers “were injured by the beam,” according to Alitalia. The Vatican said it didn’t even know until later about lasers pointed at the aircraft.
Still, the incident raised enough concern for Flight AZ4000’s Capt. Massimiliano Marselli to “promptly report” it to the Benito Juarez International Airport’s control tower, according to Alitalia.
Laser attacks becoming increasingly common
Who was responsible? Was the Pope’s Airbus A330, which was widely reported to be landing in the Mexican capital at that time, randomly hit or specifically targeted? Especially if it was the latter, why did they do it?
There were no official answers to any of those questions as of Wednesday. In fact, the Mexico City airport has indicated officials there didn’t know about the incident.
But the fact it happened at all — that someone would point a laser beam at a large commercial airliner potentially carrying hundreds of people, whether or not one of the most world’s renowned religious figure was on it — is hardly a surprise.
Laser strikes on planes have become increasingly common in recent years, in part due to the fact handheld lasers have become more common and affordable.
In the United States, for instance, the FAA reported 5,352 such strikes from January through mid-October 2015. That’s compared to 3,984 in 2014, and 384 in 2006, the first year such numbers were compiled by the FAA.
These beams are harmless most of the time. But not always, with authorities pointing to the risk of eye injuries to flight crews as well as the impact that blinding them — even for a few seconds — could have on the massive, passenger-packed planes they’re piloting.
“Shining a laser into the cockpit of an aircraft is a serious safety risk,” one-time FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt has said. “Lasers can distract or temporarily blind pilots who are trying to fly safely to their destinations and could compromise the safety of hundreds of passengers.”