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FAA pressured to crack down on hot air balloons

FAA pressured to crack down on hot air balloons
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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is coming under increasing pressure to crack down on hot air balloon operations after federal investigators blamed lax regulations for a deadly crash last year.  

Some lawmakers are backing legislation that would require tougher oversight of the industry and force hot air balloon pilots to obtain medical examinations before they are deemed fit to fly.  

The FAA, which has the legal authority to take those actions on its own, has agreed to review similar recommendations from a federal safety board – though the FAA points out that it already implemented steps to improve the safety of hot air balloon tourism.

“The FAA will carefully consider the [National Transportation Safety Board] NTSB’s recommendations,” an FAA spokesperson said in a statement.

Efforts to reform how the hot air balloon industry is regulated have picked up steam since the worst hot air balloon disaster in U.S. history occurred last year, when a balloon crash left 16 people dead.

Alfred Nichols, the lone operator of a small hot air balloon company, was piloting a hot air balloon in unsafe weather conditions near Lockhart, Texas, last summer, when he struck high-voltage power lines and plunged into a rural field.

The NTSB, which held a hearing in Washington this week to discuss its investigation findings, released a scathing report ripping the FAA over the fatal crash. Investigators not only blamed the pilot’s poor decision-making for the disaster, but also faulted the FAA for its lack of oversight of smaller balloon companies and for exempting balloon pilots from medical checks. 

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Unlike commercial airline pilots, commercial hot air balloon pilots are not required by the FAA to hold a medical certificate of any kind. 

The NTSB said that Nichols suffered from depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He was taking sedatives and opioids, and also had a high enough dosage of Benadryl in his system at the time of the crash to have an “impairing” effect. 

The cocktail of “multiple central nervous system-impairing drugs" likely affected his ability to make safe decisions during the crash, the NTSB determined.

Nichols’s medical conditions “would likely have led an aviation medical examiner to either defer or deny a medical certificate,” the NTSB said.

A medical examination also would have made the FAA aware of the pilot’s history of drug- and alcohol-related offenses: Nichols had at least four convictions for drunken driving, according to the Associated Press.

“This pilot should not have been flying, never mind carrying paying passengers. The pilot's poor decisions on the day of the accident were his and his alone, but they affected those who flew with him,” said NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt. “Other decisions made within government, dating back decades, exempted him from having to hold an FAA medical certificate."

The NTSB also dinged the FAA for primarily focusing its safety inspections on large, organized hot air balloon gatherings and festivals, thus allowing smaller balloon operators like Nichols to more easily escape regulators' scrutiny. The agency conducted 98 percent of its oversight of balloon operators at large balloon gatherings, investigators found.

"[The FAA] doesn't capture the one-off, small operator," said Bill English, lead NTSB investigator. 

The board recommended that the FAA start requiring balloon pilots to obtain medical certificates and reevaluate its policies for conducting oversight of commercial balloon operators who “pose the most significant safety risks to the public.” The FAA has 90 days to respond to the recommendations.

It’s not the first time that the NTSB has warned the FAA to more closely regulate the hot air balloon industry. The safety board hoisted a red flag about the FAA’s lack of oversight in 2014, but the agency insisted at the time that the risks were low.

But the industry has called Nichols a rogue operator, and says that more stringent federal regulations are not the answer. Instead, the Balloon Federation of America (BFA) worked with the FAA over the past year to develop a voluntary standards program for balloon ride operations. The guidelines, which essentially allow the industry to police itself, were rolled out last week. 

Companies can be “accredited” by the program if pilots have a specified amount of flight experience, hold an FAA second-class medical certificate, pass a drug and alcohol background check, have attended a safety seminar within the last 12 months and are enrolled in an FAA pilot safety program.

“The FAA believes the BFA program will enhance safety and professionalism, and will allow consumers to be better informed before they choose a commercial balloon ride operator,” the FAA said last week.

While the NTSB called the voluntary guidelines a step in the right direction, Sumwalt warned that the standards are difficult to enforce and accused the FAA of “shirking” its federal oversight responsibilities.

And while the FAA could beef up safety requirements on its own, Congress may not wait around for the agency to take action. 

Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCruz urges Supreme Court to take up Pennsylvania election challenge OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Trump administration proceeds with rollback of bird protections despite objections | Trump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians | EU 2019 greenhouse gas emissions down 24 percent Trump's NATO ambassador pledges 'seamless' transition to Biden administration MORE (R-Texas) unveiled a bill this summer that would require hot air balloon pilots to get medical exams.  

A Senate aviation bill, which moved through committee but has not yet been considered on the floor, includes similar language requiring pilots to obtain second-class medical certificates.

And Rep. Lloyd DoggettLloyd Alton DoggettCongress must repeal tax breaks for the wealthy passed in CARES Act Ocasio-Cortez, progressives call on Senate not to confirm lobbyists or executives to future administration posts Trump order on drug prices faces long road to finish line MORE (D-Texas), who represents the district where the crash occurred, wrote a passionate plea to the FAA this week urging the agency to adopt all of the NTSB’s safety recommendations. 

“Voluntary standards are no substitute for federal enforcement,” Doggett said. “Please do not wait for more to die before taking action.”