Hot Air Balloon Group’s New Program Puts Safety First
After a fatal hot air balloon crash in 2016, the Balloon Federation of America is launching a new accreditation program to ensure that companies and pilots adhere to the highest safety standards.
In July 2016, a hot air balloon flew into power lines in Lockhart, Texas, and burst into flames, killing all 16 people on board. After an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, which blamed the pilot’s “pattern of poor decision-making” for the accident, the Federal Aviation Administration asked the Balloon Federation of America to consider how to improve the safety of hot air balloon rides.
Earlier this month, BFA announced its two-fold Envelope of Safety Program [PDF], which hopes to “make safety and professionalism a competitive advantage in the marketplace for operators of all sizes.” In addition, BFA wants to educate consumers on the differences between pilots and companies that fly large balloons every day and hobbyists.
To satisfy its first goal, BFA created a three-tier system that allows balloon ride companies to attain silver, gold, or platinum medals when they meet certain safety standards. For instance, to achieve silver medal status, companies must provide valid proof of insurance for each of their vehicles, have online forums where passengers can comment on and rate their experience, and not have more than two accidents or incidents within three years, among other requirements. Each tier builds on the requirements of the last, so gold-level companies can have just one accident, incident, or occurrence within three years, whereas platinum-level companies can have none.
BFA is also encouraging pilots to earn PRO (Professional Ride Operator) Pilot status. Some requirements include passing a drug and alcohol background check; not having more than one accident, incident, or occurrence in one year and not more than two accidents in the last five years; and attending at least one BFA safety seminar per year.
But because BFA isn’t a regulatory organization, “there is nothing that says that anyone has to agree or has to participate,” said Patrick Cannon, who works on BFA’s government and communications committees. However, BFA hopes that its members will see the Envelope of Safety Program as a way to promote themselves as reputable companies and pilots.
In addition to encouraging balloon ride companies and pilots to adhere to the new program, BFA will us an ambassador system to inform consumers about the differences among balloon pilots.
“These are special people that have been appointed as balloon ambassadors under the Balloon Federation,” Cannon said. “We’re going to put them through some ambassador training that will tell them how to deal with the media, tell them how to deal with the local community, and how to educate the local community” on what they should be looking for when they’re about to take a balloon ride.
Cannon said that BFA’s focus has always been safety, but this new program will allow it “to gather the flock … gather all of the balloon operators under the roof so that they’re going to meet certain minimal levels of standard.”
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