When scientific experiments require transmission of powerful laser or radio beams through the atmosphere, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that precautions be taken to avoid inadvertent illumination of aircraft. At present, the FAA requires that laser operators use human spotters to protect against accidental illumination. Here, we describe a simple, inexpensive, and highly reliable electronic system for detecting aircraft entering the vicinity of a laser beam that makes use of the air traffic control (ATC) radio transponders required on most aircraft. The radio system uses two antennas, both aligned with the laser beam. One antenna has a broad beam and the other has a narrow beam. The ratio of the transponder power received in the narrow beam to that received in the broad beam gives a measure of the angular distance of the aircraft from the axis that is independent of the range or the transmitter power. This ratio is easily measured and can be used to shutter the laser when the aircraft is too close to the beam. Comparisons of prototype systems operating at both the Apache Point and W. M. Keck Observatory with an FAA database indicate successful identification of commercial airplanes passing near the telescope boresight.