Hot-air balloonists face a day of reckoning -- and regulation

Sparked by the worst ballooning tragedy in U.S. history, 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 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 Oct. 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.

Millions of dollars will be spent promoting what Albuquerque calls "the Super Bowl of ballooning" in the hope that -- as in previous years -- close to 900,000 people will gaze at the famous "ascension" each morning and "balloon glow" in the evening.

The Fiesta normally brings in $100 million to the Albuquerque economy, and in only one year (2008) did an extended rainout and bad weather make the normally dry desert city lose money.

So far, most safety measures enacted in the ballooning industry have come from the pilots themselves, who swap information regularly through their organization, the Balloon Federation of America (BFA). But a report by an FAA safety inspector in 2013 said balloonists needed improved training to handle "the 11-story-tall behemoths" and should be subject to more demanding certification and hands-on oversight by FAA inspectors.

However, FAA Chief Michael Huerta overruled those recommendations, according to The Wall Street Journal, due to the high cost and -- at the time -- low risk. Rarely is someone killed in a balloon, and it's often attributed to accidentally hitting a high-tension power line.

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Authorities investigate the site of a hot air balloon accident in Maxwell, Texas. on July 30, 2016.

AARON M. SPRECHER/AFP/Getty Images

Balloonists say their sport is safer than driving, where 38,000 people died on the roads last year. And the proposed safety measures didn't gain any traction with balloonists, either.

The BFA's board of directors issued a statement calling them "unnecessary and burdensome." Balloonists claim that more government regulation -- which they would probably have to pay for -- would cripple the small businesses that dominate their industry.

But today's FAA/BFA meeting in Washington, D.C., includes some 200 commercial balloon operators nationwide and signals a change in the atmospheric pressure.

"The goal of the meeting is to reach consensus on practical short-term steps the community can quickly take to reduce risk," said the FAA in a statement. "[And we are] also developing options for longer-term risk mitigation," said BFA President Dean Carlton in a letter to his 2,100 members. They represent both "sport" balloons, which mostly go up for pleasure or do advertising, and generally larger commercial balloons that carry passengers.

What those plans will be and how far they'll go is anyone's guess, but the first step on both sides is to reassure the public that ballooning is safe as thousands of passengers prepare to ascend into the skies during the Albuquerque Fiesta. The event's officials didn't respond to emails seeking comment.

Appelman, who runs the Fiesta's commercial balloon concession, said he checks out all the operators who'll take up customers at the event. "I've worked with them for almost 18 years, and I know them all," he said.

But what about all the other balloon festivals that take place year-round nationwide? And all the companies and individuals operating with only minimal licensing and restrictions? For both the FAA and BFA, the Lockhart case could be a classic example of what not to do.

According to published reports, 49-year-old balloon pilot Nichols had convictions for drunk driving and drugs and spent time in a Missouri jail. Yet he was still able to pilot a balloon. He also had a history of complaints and even a lawsuit against him that was settled. But he still had a commercial pilot's license.

By ascending that day, Nichols violated rules requiring a minimum of one mile of visibility. He then ducked through a cloudbank -- by flying too low -- and hit a power line that, in all probability, ignited the propane fuel tanks that had kept the balloon afloat.

A preliminary report on the accident by the National Transportation Safety Board, which also supports stronger regulation, is due out shortly.

Flying in a balloon is very different from flying aboard a commercial plane, where the airline vets the pilot. But balloon customers themselves need to know who the pilot is, his or her years of experience and their track record. Until rules change, it's still "buyer beware."

"You need to check out the operator," said Appelman, who's known in the industry as a "balloonists' balloonist." "Do the same thing you would do when getting your house fixed or going on vacation. Use Trip Advisor, Google reviews, the Better Business Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce."

"Remember," he said, "we're not just talking about putting shingles on a roof. We're talking about your life and your kids' lives."

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.