Texas Hot Air Balloon Ride Kills 16, Regulations Enough?

16 people riding a hot air balloon in Texas died after the balloon caught fire. This is one of the worst hot air balloon accidents in US history. Are the current regulations enough? Should hot air balloon operating companies by subject to stricter regulations?

*For immediate release, July 31, 2016

Yesterday, a hot air balloon accident resulted in the deaths of all 16 passengers. The accident occurred just outside of Austin, Texas and is one of the worst hot air balloon accidents in U.S. history. Federal authorities are investigating.

The incident is believed to have been caused by contact with power lines which resulted in a fire. The balloon then crashed to the ground. No survivors have been found.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will investigate the accident and issue a final report, which often takes several months.

“In my opinion, the hot air balloon industry is perpetuating a fraud on the public. The average person believes that hot air ballooning is safe because they are misled and not informed about all of the foreseeable risks. At the very least, it’s time for the FAA to apply stricter regulations on this industry to protect the public.” – Jeffrey Laffey, injury attorney who successfully litigated the Virginia hot air balloon accident case involving 3 fatalities

Hot Air Balloon Operations – Regulated Enough?

hot air balloonThis recent hot air balloon accident highlights a disturbing reality. Hot air balloon activities are not regulated as much as private, commercial helicopter or airplane rides are. What’s particularly troubling is that since 2014, the NTSB has been trying to get the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to beef up regulations of hot air balloon activities in the U.S.

The problem is that the NTSB simply doesn’t have enough power to effect any change itself. It was established nearly 50 years ago for the purpose of conducting investigations of all civil aviation accidents as well as other transportation related accidents. The NTSB exists solely on its own and is not part of the Department of Transportation or the FAA. It has zero enforcement or regulatory powers. In addition, its investigation findings cannot be entered into court as evidence in any criminal cases or civil lawsuits.

National Traffic Safety Board’s Recommendations for Hot Air Balloon Ride Safety

Because of its lack of regulatory or enforcement power, the NTSB has tried to get the FAA to increase regulations of hot air balloon rides. The NTSB issued a safety recommendation to the FAA after a hot air balloon accident in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania in April 2013, where multiple people were injured. The NTSB’s recommendation was made the following year, in April 2014.

As part of its recommendation, the NTSB argued that hot air balloon activities should be subject to stricter regulations and that hot air balloon operating companies should be required to obtain and maintain letters of authorization to conduct air tour activities. See NTSB Safety Recommendation A-14-011 (PDF version).

As recently as March 2016, the NTSB stated that letters of authorization (LOA) would result in multiple safety surveillance checks, such as:

  • verification checks to ensure pilots have certifications and have undergone competency evaluations,
  • equipment certificate/maintenance checks,
  • safety checklist use,
  • passenger safety briefings, and
  • use of flight planning.

The FAA basically ignored the NTSB’s safety recommendation. Since the recommendation was issued in 2014, there have been several hot air balloon accidents in the U.S., many of which resulted in fatalities. There is a very real possibility that had the FAA tightened regulations for hot air balloon operating companies, this recent accident might have been avoided. It is certainly time for the FAA to listen.

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