NEW YORK (CBSDFW.COM/CBS NEWS) - Sparked by the worst ballooning tragedy in U.S. history -- a deadly fire and crash in Texas -- the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will meet with hot air balloon operators Friday to discuss "the risks facing the ballooning community."
For balloonists, and the estimated 500,000 passengers who ascend in those wicker baskets attached to multicolored balloons each year, this meeting couldn't come at a more relevant time. When one of those balloons touched a high-tension power line in Lockhart, Texas, on July 30 the explosion sent 15 passengers and the pilot to the ground in flames, killing all of them. And thus, it became the worst tragedy in U.S. ballooning history.
The news was bad enough. But subsequent stories about pilot Skip Nichols' checkered past, and his possible mishandling of the balloon, cast a pall over this billion-dollar industry, causing many potential customers to wonder, "Is it safe to go up 1,000 feet in the air?"
"Business is down probably 25 percent to 30 percent," said Scott Appelman, founder and president of Rainbow Ryders, which operates commercial balloons in the Southwest. "But that's only been for the last week. Hopefully, because a few people on vacation passed it up."
Also at risk is this year's nine-day Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta that launches on October 1. It's the world's largest balloon festival, with 550 of the best hot air and gas balloonists from around the world competing above a 360-acre park dedicated to the sport.
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