Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festivals – Safety Concerns?

October 6th, 2017 | by RON BELL

Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festivals – Safety Concerns?

The 46th Annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is October 7-15, 2017. Hundreds of balloons are expected to fill the skies, and inflate the local economy – as it has every year.

The 2016 event had 841,000 visitors with 550 registered balloon teams representing 19 countries and 43 states.The nine-day event nearly filled all of the 17,000 available hotel rooms, said The Business Journals. “During Balloon Fiesta, the city’s hotel occupancy rate was 78.5 percent, with that number going as high as 94.8 percent one night.”The 2015 event reportedly added $177 million in economic impact, equating to each person spending around $210.

Hot Air Balloon Safety in Question

Despite the ballooning of the economy, events such as this one have been getting more and more negative press – some of it undeserved, say proponents.

Jeff Chatterton, who represents the Balloon Federation of America, commented on the 2016 accident where 30 balloons collided and killed 16 people. He called the event “the biggest lighter-than-air disaster in North American history, dating back to the Hindenburg” to CNN. However, he also said that shouldn’t put people off from the industry. He says it’s safe. “There’s no landing gear to fail. There’s no engine to fail,” Chatterton said. “There’s no fixed wings to have a problem with the flaps. There’s no rotor blade spinning over your head.”

It’s simple, so it’s safe, was his assertion.

However, even here in New Mexico at the International Balloon Fiesta, there has been accidents.

In 2013, a balloon hit power lines, severely burning two men inside and the balloon plummeting 40 feet to the ground. CNN affiliate KRQE reported it was not the first incident of the Fiesta that year.

“On Saturday, a balloon hit a power pole. On Sunday, a balloon hit power lines,” KRQE reported. “But in those cases, both balloons were able to make safe landings.”

In 2016, the Balloon Festival organizers cancelled flying a day after two hot air balloons drifted into power lines in Albuquerque and putting nearly 2,000 out of power. No one was injured.

Balloon Fiesta spokesman Tom Garrity told Fox News that the “fiesta average 4,000 balloon launches and landings and rarely sees accidents.”“But they happen,” he said. Fox News also reported events in 2008 and 2004 that included either a fatality or injury.

What Can Go Wrong?

Still, Jean-Claude Weber, president of the Federation Aeronautique Internationale’s Ballooning Commission, said it’s “one of the safest means of flying in existence.”

Even if a crash does happen, it’s usually safe, he said. “If the fuel ran out, a balloon could still be landed safely,” he said. “It’s not like an airline crash. It’s like a huge parachute. If you do it [descend] wisely and if you do it in a controlled way you can come down with cold air in the envelope but it’s still inflated — it’s still a big balloon.”

The National Transportation Safety Board notes a few things can go wrong. “Accidents typically occur because of several factors, including wind, weather and crashing into power lines,” they said.

A research paper from Aviation, Space, and Environmental Medicine (now called  Aerospace Medicine and Human Performance) did a study on the 12-year period of 2000 to 2011. In that time frame, 78 balloon tours crashed, in which 5 people died, and 91 were seriously injured.

Collisions with power lines, trees, or the actions involved in trying to avoid those object caused 34 of those accidents. The NTSB investigates and advocates regulations for aviation safety, including ballooning. Ballooning itself is overseen by regulations from the Federal Aviation Association (FAA) – though they are lighter than most aerial professions.

Helicopter and plane operators are required by FAA regulations to keep a letter of authorization, which ensures a level of maintenance, using safety checklists, and a record of regular checks.

“Chopper and plane operators who don’t comply with the regulations get their letters pulled by the FAA and legally can’t fly passengers,” noted a story by CNN. “Right now, commercial balloon operators don’t need those letters of authorization — but commercial helicopter and airplane operators do.”

Oversight and Liability

Citing recent commercial events, including those mentioned in today’s blog, has started a heated debate between the NTSB and FAA whether or not to tighten regulations on commercial hot air balloon operators.

Thus far, no stricter regulations have been set

Still, regulated or not, commercial operators are providing a service that comes with a certain level of liability for safety. Who is at fault depends on a lot of factors with legal analysts saying it could be the electric companies for not using insulated line, the operators themselves for their actions, or any number of other options.

Regardless, it is something to think about. “Ultimately, are balloon tours worth the risk?” asked Danny Cevallos, CNN Legal Analyst. “We tolerate a lot of highway fatalities due to motor vehicle accidents. This is because cars are essential to our way of life. The great danger of the automobile is outweighed by its even greater utility. Balloons are hardly essential; they’re barely a means of transportation.

“If a recreational activity’s low utility is outweighed by the danger, that activity is eventually prohibited. Or, we say to those engaging in the activity: Balloon at your own risk. That’s fine for the balloonist who can appreciate the risk of a transoceanic solo flight to the island of Krakatoa. But the passengers who paid a lot of money for a tour may not really have an opportunity to appreciate that risk.”


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