FAA refused to act after warning about balloon oversight

Ready, set, fire! Crews light up the air balloons (KXAN Photo/ Natalie Ferrari)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — More than two years after a letter from the National Transportation Safety Board urging closer oversight of balloon tour operators, the Federal Aviation Administration has yet to act.

The NTSB first sent the letter to the FAA in April 2014. It urged the administration to expand oversight of commercial balloon operators carrying passengers.

It took more than a year and a half for the FAA to respond to the letter. When the administration responded, it decided it would not be making changes.

“…would not result in a significantly higher level of operational safety,” the FAA Administrator Michael P. Huerta responded.

The response also noted that the regulation the NTSB recommended expanding for balloons was primarily meant for drug testing and that “Airmen operating under this part do not undergo additional FAA check rides/surveillance common to air carrier operations.”

“Since the amount of ballooning is so low, the FAA believes the risk posed to all pilots and participants is also low given that ballooners understand the risks and general hazards associated with this activity,” the FAA response continued.

Then, this March, the NTSB pushed back.

“We are concerned that, if no action is taken to address this safety issue, we will continue to see such accidents in the future. Since these recommendations were issued in April 2014, an additional 25 balloon accidents have occurred, resulting in four fatalities and 25 serious injuries. We encourage you to reconsider your position,” NTSB officials wrote.

During Monday’s briefing on the Lockhart balloon crash, NTSB Board Member Robert Sumwalt brought up the discussion again about the FAA’s ruling.

“That goes back to issue of oversight of commercial balloon operators. Should they be held to different standard than someone who is flying an airplane for hire or air tour operations or a helicopter?” asked Sumwalt. “We do see this discontinuity, this disparity and the level of oversight in requirements. We do not feel that the FAA response to our oversight recommendations was acceptable.”

The NTSB website lists no further response from the FAA.

Balloon Crashes in Texas

In the past 20 years, there have been 11 recorded balloon accidents, none resulting in fatalities, in Texas. While a preliminary report can come faster, the complete investigations took the agency an average of seven months to close. None of those were sooner than three months.

The last time we had a fatal balloon accident in Texas was in 1992 in Mesquite when two people died. It took investigators 13 months to close that case.

Before that, a deadly balloon accident in Houston in 1989, killed two people. In that case, it took the agency a full three years to finish its full investigation

 

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