- Jeremy Schwartz American-Statesman Staff
Two months after the deadliest balloon crash in U.S. history, the Federal Aviation Administration has no immediate plans to assume greater oversight of hot air ballooning and is instead promoting a series of industry-developed safety practices.
In August, U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, urged the FAA to reconsider its rejection of recommendations by the National Transportation Safety Board to regulate commercial balloon operators much as it does helicopter and airplane tour operators.
Two years before the July 30 balloon crash near Lockhart, which killed 16, the NTSB had warned that lax oversight of commercial balloon flights could lead to a high number of deaths in a single accident.
In a Sept. 29 response to Doggett, whose district includes Lockhart, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta wrote that the agency will wait until the safety board’s investigation into the Lockhart crash is finished before considering any new or previous recommendations from its sister agency.
NTSB officials have said the investigation could take 12 to 18 months. Investigators believe the balloon, operated by Heart of Texas Hot Air Balloon Rides, drifted into high voltage power lines, possibly while trying to land. Witnesses described seeing a fireball when the balloon hit the ground.
The safety board in 2014 called on the FAA to require balloon pilots to provide letters of authorization to local FAA offices, as their helicopter and airplane counterparts are required to do. Such letters, the board said, would result in “periodic surveillance checks” to make sure equipment is maintained properly, safety checklists are used, safety briefings are given and appropriate flight planning is conducted.
But in his letter to Doggett, Huerta touted a plan developed withthe Balloon Federation of America, an industry trade group, to “promote safe operations.”
The federation has opposed the NTSB recommendations, saying they would add a layer of unnecessary regulation.
Doggett on Thursday called the FAA’s response “very unsatisfactory” and said the agency should do more than regulate based on the “self-interest of the industry.”
“We already have plenty of evidence we need to increase standards of balloon safety,” Doggett said. “I am not pleased to see (consideration of recommendations) delayed further.”
The Balloon Federation of America said a 16-point action plan it developed in August would bring about a “much closer alliance between industry and the FAA, a comprehensive education program for operators, an awareness program for the general public, and the adoption of best practices including a well-defined operations manual.”
The action plan calls for a system that would rate operators based on their completion of safety programs, flying experience, participation in random drug screenings, pilot background checks and insurance information.
The plan did not specifically mention putting annual inspection records online. While such inspections are required by the FAA, operators are not required to submit the results to the agency, but rather to hand them over “on request.” A Freedom of Information Act request by the American-Statesman for inspection and maintenance records on the Heart of Texas balloon yielded no results, but an FAA spokesman said that does not mean the inspection records do not exist.
FAA spokesman Lynn Lunsford confirmed that there is no way for members of the public to view inspection results for balloons they are contemplating riding without contacting balloon operators directly.
The industry plan also envisions a public database of balloon ride operators that would include individual ratings. The federation also planned to gather information on pilot activity, passengers flown and “unrecorded incidents” to establish “risk areas.”
And the plan calls for a campaign aimed at improving the public perception of ballooning that includes providing local news media with “positive stories about ballooning.”
A Statesman investigation in August found that nearly 70 percent of fatal balloon crashes since 1964 involved some form of pilot error. The analysis of every fatal hot air balloon crash investigated by the NTSB also found numerous safety issues, including improperly modified equipment, lack of helmets for passengers and inadequate safety briefings. Balloon deaths had been decreasing over the previous two decades before the July crash, according to the data.
Since the July 30 crash, the FAA has issued a directive calling for replacement of fuel hoses from Balony Kubicek, the same company that built the balloon that crashed. Lunsford said the directive came not as a result of the crash, but from a July 26 finding from European authorities that propane leaks in such fuel hoses “could result in fire.” Balony Kubicek had previously called on owners to replace any fuel lines made of “Egeflex” material.