In April 2014, the National Transportation and Safety Board warned of the potential for a “high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident” if federal officials did not adopt stricter regulations of hot air balloon tour operators.
The recommendations, which the safety board said would bring balloon operators in line with the kind of oversight received by airplane and helicopter tour operators, were quickly dismissed as “unnecessary and burdensome” by the trade group Balloon Federation of America.
And in November, the Federal Aviation Administration formally rejected the safety recommendations, writing that “Since the amount of ballooning is so low, the FAA believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low.”
It’s unclear whether the safety recommendations could have prevented Saturday’s catastrophic balloon crash near Lockhart, in which at least 16 people are believed to have been killed. But it seems likely that the foretold crash will renew calls for enhanced safety regulation of an industry that has experienced a number of deadly accidents in recent years.
Just three months ago, the NTSB blasted the FAA’s inaction as unacceptable. “We are concerned that, if no action is taken to address this safety issue, we will continue to see such accidents in the future,” the agency wrote in March. “Since these recommendations were issued in April 2014, an additional 25 balloon accidents have occurred, resulting in four fatalities and 25 serious injuries.”
A spokesman for the FAA said the agency was unable to immediately provide information on any accidents, incidents or enforcement actions related to Heart of Texas Balloon Rides, which operated the balloon that crashed Saturday.
National Transportation Safety Board reports from the last 15 years in Texas did not show any accidents related to Heart of Texas Balloon Rides, though not all reports identified operating companies.
The company has D-plus rating from the Better Business Bureau, with most complaints coming from frustrated customers over weather-related cancellations and disputes over refunds. Throughout the company’s responses, company officials cited the need to keep customers safe in windy or otherwise adverse conditions.
“It does take patience and persistence to go for a hot air balloon ride, as do all completely weather dependent outdoor activities,” the company wrote in November in response to a complaint. “No responsible hot air balloon ride business will ever jeopardize the passengers’ safety by flying in conditions which are unsafe. Safety is our absolute priority.”
In its 2014 letter to the FAA, the safety board found that a series of recent accidents revealed “operational deficiencies” in commercial air tour balloon operations such as operating in unfavorable wind conditions and the failure to follow flight manual procedures. The safety board said it was concerned the accidents were the “result of the current lack of oversight relative to similar airplane and helicopter air tour operations.”
In rejecting the NTSB’s safety recommendations, the Balloon Federation of America wrote that they would “add another layer of unnecessary federal oversight to an already challenged FAA. Such a regulation would prove burdensome to the tour flight business owners and their pilots in both time and money to comply with the regulation.”
Instead, the trade group, which did not respond to a request for comment Saturday, touted industry-led safety seminars and industry-developed safe operating guidelines.
In its rejection of the recommendations, the FAA also noted that it “regularly attends sanctioned ballooning events and performs certain oversight activities, such as checking pilot credentials and reviewing the airworthiness condition of the balloon.”
A 2013 study found that between 2000 and 2011, balloon crashes resulted in 91 serious injuries and five deaths. The study found the deaths all came after balloons hit fixed objects such as power lines and trees. The study also found that the proportion of balloon crashes attributed to paid rides appears to have increased over time.
Other reports have found that since 1964, there have been 114 fatalities from balloon crashes.
NTSB records show four balloon crashes prior to Saturday’s accident in 2016, including one incident in which a ground crew member was killed while trying to secure a basket during an unintentional liftoff in New York.
The most recent Texas crash occurred in July 2015 in Longview when a pilot aborted a landing during high winds to avoid power lines and landed in an adjacent field, breaking his hip and ankle.
The most recent fatal balloon accident in Texas occurred in 1992 in Mesquite, when a balloon hit a power line, according to an NTSB database. Two people died when the basket fell to the pavement 65 feet below.