Lawmakers Want Heavy-Handed Regulation of Lighter-Than-Air Balloons

Regulators, for once, are pushing back.


Hot air balloon
Marilyn Gould/Dreamstime

The National Transportation Safety Board has for years been pushing a reluctant Federal Aviation Administration to regulate, of all people, hot air balloon operators.

Prodded by a single terrible crash in 2016, the NTSB has suddenly found allies in a bi-partisan collection of Texas lawmakers, who are loudly demanding action.

On Monday, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D–Texas)—along with Reps. Blake Farenthold (R–Texas) and Will Hurd (R–Texas)—introduced legislation that would force the FAA to require medical screenings of commercial balloon operators. Sen. Ted Cruz (R–Texas), who likes to describe himself as "one of the most libertarian members of the senate," is also on board, having introduced similar legislation back in June.

"Continued rejection of NTSB's recommendations risks condemning more unsuspecting families to death," wrote Doggett (D–Texas) in an October 19 open letter to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Michael P. Huerta. The Lockhart crash happened in Doggett's district.

At long last, the NTSB's regulatory dream stands a good chance of becoming reality.

This latest legislative push came in response to the release of NTSB's preliminary report on a crash that killed 16 people July 30, 2016 outside of Lockhart, Texas. The crash is the deadliest ballooning accident in U.S. history. The balloon's pilot—Alfred "Skip" Nichols—had been taking multiple reaction-impairing drugs at the time of the crash, and he had been arrested numerous times for drunk driving.

The NTSB report called for stricter oversight of ballooning operations and periodic medical screening for balloon operators. It's a demand the NTSB began making in 2014 and one the FAA has consistently opposed.

The FAA has consistently contended widespread medical screeing would not have prevented fatal crashes, none of which has ever been caused by a pilot's medical issues.

From October 2003 to July 2016, there were 15 fatal balloon accidents, five of them involving commercial balloons and operators. In 2016 alone, 413 people died (including the Lockhart deaths) deaths from all general aviation aircraft accidents. In its submission to the NTSB in April, the FAA noted that the deaths in the Lockhart crash were equal to the total number of deaths in all fatal balloon crashes of the preceding twelve years.

For an agency known for its heavy-handed regulations of drones and for killing off "Uber for planes," the FAA made a convincing case that nothing in the NTSB's recommendations would have even prevented the Lockhart crash.

The cocktail of opioids, antidepressants, and amphetamines found in Nichols' system, are already prohibited by FAA regulations, as was his failure to report his multiple arrests for drunk driving and drug possession.

Nichols had falsified his 1996 application for an FAA medical exam in 1996 to exclude a drunk driving arrest, despite this behavior carrying up to $250,000 in fines and five years in prison. It's unikley additional sanctions would have deterred him from doing so again.

The FAA actually found out about Nichols' failure to report his various charges in 2013, but declined to sanction him because the last of them was three years old. A condemnable failure on the part of the FAA, perhaps, but not one caused by a lack of information.

Reason's Scott Shackford asked at the time of the crash whether the problem was a lack of transparency, rather than regulation. At the time, little information was available to customers about their prospective balloon pilots.

Since Lockhart, the balloon industry created a voluntary certification system. Balloon companies must provide evidence that they randomly screen their pilots for drug use in order to achieve the highest safety ranking.

The urge to regulate in the wake of a tragedy is often overpowering. Burdensome and ineffective rules, however, remain long after a tragedy. Considering how rare balloon crash deaths are, how likely it is that any of the proposed legislation would have prevented the latest crash? And now that voluntary efforts at regulation are underway, the logic behind additional restrictions falls to earth pretty quickly.

Don't count on that stopping lawmakers, however.