The government is being urged to classify lasers as 'offensive weapons' after a growing increase in aircraft 'attacks', according to a pilots' union.
The latest incident saw a Virgin Atlantic flight forced to return to Heathrow Airport after a laser was shone into the cockpit on Sunday (February 14) night.
Police are trying to find the source of the beam, which caused the New York-bound flight to double back on itself when the pilot reported 'feeling unwell'.
Jim McAuslan, general secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association (Balpa), said: "This is not an isolated incident. Aircraft are attacked with lasers at an alarming rate and with lasers with ever-increasing strength.
"It is an incredibly dangerous thing to do. Shining a laser at an aircraft puts that aircraft, its crew and all the passengers on board at completely unnecessary risk.
"Modern lasers have the power to blind, and certainly to act as a huge distraction and to dazzle the pilots during critical phases of flight."
New criminal charges
Offenders can be charged with shining a light at an aircraft in flight so as to dazzle or distract the pilot, after a law was passed in 2010.
If the distraction or dazzle is serious, a person may be found guilty of reckless endangerment and sent to prison.
Balpa explain the consequences of lasers as temporary vision loss associated with flash blindness, a "visual interference that persists after the source of illumination has been removed", an after-image, an "image left in the visual field after exposure to a bright light", and glare.
Mr McAuslan added: "We repeat our call to the government to classify lasers as offensive weapons which would give the police more power to arrest people for possessing them if they had no good reason to have them.
“This incident shows why this is becoming more and more urgent."
Heathrow Airport 'most frequent' laser incidents
Virgin Atlantic offered all their customers overnight accommodation, stating the safety of the crew and customers on board the VS025 travelling from London Heathrow to New York JFK flight was a "top priority".
They added: "We are working with the authorities to identify the source of the laser that caused the return of the aircraft to Heathrow."
Between 2009 and June 2015 more than 8,998 laser incidents across the country were reported to the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Heathrow Airport topped the list for the number of most frequent laser incidents for the first six months of last year with 48, followed by Birmingham with 32, Leeds Bradford with 24 and Manchester with 23.
A CAA spokesman said: "Shining a laser at an aircraft in flight could pose a serious safety risk and it is a criminal offence to do so.
“We strongly urge anyone who sees a laser being used at night in the vicinity of an airport to contact the police immediately."