Extremely Rare Deadly Balloon Tragedy Leads to Familiar Calls for More Regulation

Is more oversight truly needed, or just more risk awareness?


Hot air balloons
Richard Dickin/MCT/Newscom

This weekend's deadly hot air balloon crash in Texas—killing 16 people on board—has been declared the worst in North American history. There have been a handful of other balloon crashes with major fatalities—in Egypt (21 dead), Australia (13), and New Zealand (11).

Balloon accidents like the scope of what happened are certainly extremely rare. The Centers for Disease Control's statistics on fatal accidents lump all deaths from water, air and even space transport together. In 2013, the CDC recorded 1,569 deaths in all of these categories, compared to more than 170,000 deaths from all forms of ground transportation.

But given such a massive, high-profile tragedy, it should not come as a surprise to see the familiar question as to whether government regulation and oversight could have or should have prevented such a crash. Feeding their concerns: The pilot, Alfred Nichols, had a history of driving while intoxicated arrests and spent time in prison for a drug crime arrest.

Now, having said that, nobody actually knows at this point whether Nichols was impaired when he was flying or was any way responsible for the crash. Nevertheless, the crash has revealed that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not oversee balloon pilots as strictly as they do airplane pilots. The reasons should seem obvious: While flying a balloon has its risks, it's not in the same league as flying a plane.

And so comes the question of whether there should be additional regulations and rules placed upon those who want to fly hot air balloons. From Reuters:

At Monday's briefing, Robert Sumwalt, who is heading the investigation for the National Transportation Safety Board, said that unlike airplane and helicopter pilots, balloon pilots are not required to apply for Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) medical certificates.

That process screens applicants for drug or alcohol-related convictions and certificates are renewable every six months, Sumwalt said in response to a reporter's question.

"That goes back to the issue of oversight of commercial balloon operators, he said. "We do see this discontinuity, this disparity in this level of oversight requirements."

The NTSB urged the Federal Aviation Administration in April 2014 to require commercial balloon operators to have a letter of authorization similar to that required of pilots of tour planes and helicopters, which includes drug testing.

It was the FAA that, believe it or not, declined to increase the oversight on balloonists under that rather rational response that they didn't believe it would increase operational safety. The FAA believed the risks were low because of the amount of ballooning that happens in America is relatively low and also concluded that ballooners understand the risks of the activity.

So the FAA actually pushed back against regulating ballooning further. The NTSB was not happy with the outcome. In their own response to the FAA's decision, the NTSB noted that they had called for the change in April of 2014, and by March of 2016 there had been 25 additional balloon crashes with four fatalities. Those stats, though, actually bolster the FAA's argument. Is four deaths over two years truly evidence that there needs to be drug testing of all balloonists? Does this one admittedly large tragedy actually change the math at all?

But one other thing to think about: Do people who go out to fly in a hot air balloon actually know that balloon pilots aren't being tested for drugs or having their background checked for those types of arrests? Or does the average American assume, given how many other occupations require such checks and tests, that this oversight is already happening? Do the consumers truly know the actual risks involved with flying in a balloon or are they just trusting that the federal government has taken certain actions to assure safety?

So the question is maybe not more oversight, but more transparency? Of course, even regular drug testing doesn't guarantee that a balloon pilot won't be stoned or drunk for any particular flight, but knowing that a pilot isn't being tested regularly (and this is assuming the companies aren't testing pilots themselves) might cause one to ask some relevant questions before climbing aboard.