Articles

Balloon safety too often left up in the air

Wendy Tadros, Chair
Transportation Safety Board of Canada

This article was published on newswire.ca on 1 September 2011.

There's something very basic, almost primal, about our collective human desire for flight. Ever since 1783, when the brothers Montgolfier first wowed French royalty with the launch of their Aerostat Réveillon, poets and engineers alike have been inspired to soar with the eagles, floating above the clouds to a place most of us have never truly been.

This fall, that desire will be on full display in the National Capital Region as thousands of people attend the annual Gatineau Hot Air Balloon Festival. The hugely popular event, which began in 1988, runs from September 2-5, and is expected to draw crowds—and balloonists—from across the globe.

It's not hard to see why. It may have been more than 200 years, but the basic premise of ballooning—not to mention its allure—remains much the same: fill an envelope with hot air, attach a basket, and float into the wild blue yonder. Caution, however, is required, because there are some basic risks that aren't being addressed—risks that have caused 15 reported balloon accidents since 1997, some of them deadly.

It was just over four years ago, in fact, that the industry was rocked by a pair of high-profile accidents that shook public confidence. First, came the morning of August 11, 2007, when a balloon containing 11 passengers departed for a sightseeing tour on the outskirts of Winnipeg. The pleasure flight, however, quickly became a nightmare when heavy winds forced a jarring landing that ruptured a fuel line and started a fire that left three people severely injured. Less than two weeks later, another accident, this time in British Columbia, had even more tragic results: multiple injuries, and two dead.

According to Transport Canada (TC), there are almost 500 balloons registered nationwide, and obviously the vast majority of voyages take place without incident. The issue, rather, is one of regulation and oversight. According to the Aeronautics Act, a balloon is defined as an aircraft. Using it for "hire or reward" makes it a commercial air service operation, and thus obliges the operator to address many of the same requirements that apply to other aircraft: flight operations, pilot certification, maintenance, construction and manufacturing standards, passenger safety, takeoff and landing restrictions.

Balloons, though, are not regulated the same as other types of aircraft, wherein TC not only sets out clearly defined standards and regulations, but also enforces them via a rigorous oversight and inspection process. Instead, balloons are classified as "general aviation" and assigned a much lower priority—so low, in fact, that a large balloon that carries paying passengers is unlikely to ever receive a government safety inspection.

Basic questions, therefore, are left up to each individual company:

  • Who defines "safe flying weather," and how do they do it? Did a qualified meteorologist make an official forecast, or did someone just stick a wet finger in the air?
  • What, exactly, is involved in a passenger safety briefing? Are there any standards? And what about balloon cabin safety: do passengers need protective equipment such as helmets, gloves, or a restraint system—and is key equipment such as fuel lines or valves kept safely out of reach?
  • Worse, what about the rest of the balloon? When was the last time the envelope was checked? The burners? Is there an emergency shutoff valve? Is one even required?

The good news is that many organizations do make safety a top priority. Moreover, TC requires balloon operators to have a special, government-issued Special Flight Operations Certificate (SFOC). The problem is that these don't expire—one issued last month is just as valid as one from 1975—nor does an SFOC meet the standards required of other commercial air operators. Worse still, balloon companies aren't required to develop operations manuals and maintenance control manuals—basic steps that were long ago mandated as standard for other types of commercial aircraft.

Concerned about this lack of adequate standards and regulations, the TSB issued a pair of recommendations in 2008. The first urged TC to ensure that passenger-carrying commercial balloon operations provide a level of safety "equivalent to that established for other aircraft of equal passenger carrying capacity." The second, meanwhile, urged TC to ensure that balloons carrying fare-paying passengers have an emergency fuel shutoff.

TC has pledged to conduct "a risk assessment" of commercial passenger-carrying balloon operations. The regulatory process, however, can take years—and in the meantime, our recommendations remain unimplemented. Simply put, not enough has been done.

So, what's next? That's hard to say. Balloons aren't about to stop flying, any more than people are about to stop flocking to the festivals in Quebec, Ontario, and New Brunswick, to name just a few. But whether they're lining up for the first trip or their twenty-first, passengers still deserve the safest possible journey. That means businesses and regulators need to work together to establish regulations, common standards, and best practices so that everyone can continue to experience—safely—what two French brothers first offered over two hundred years ago: the thrill of flight and the chance to see the world from a different point of view.