Albuquerque balloon party requests waiver of FAA tracking rule

ALBUQUERQUE, NM (AP) — Organizers of the Albuquerque International Balloon Party are seeking a waiver from federal aviation officials, saying a requirement that aircraft have specific tracking technology could affect the annual event.

The Federal Aviation Administration rule affects most of the airspace above New Mexico’s largest city. The agency granted a waiver for last year’s party, and event officials tell the Albuquerque Journal they are asking for a similar exemption for this year’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Balloonists say the rule remains a problem because it prevents passengers from getting great views from higher flights and prevents pilots from more scenic locations such as the Rio Grande.

“It will be the end of the industry, sport and (the) culture that Albuquerque has been made world famous for,” said Scott Appelman, 39-year-old founder and chairman of hot air balloon company Rainbow Ryders.

Appelman said the balloons don’t have the tracking technology, and federal regulators haven’t provided standards on how to integrate it.

Murray Conrad, the owner of World Balloon, said he is still able to use his launch site on the west side of the city as long as crews determine that winds won’t blow them east into the more regulated airspace and as long as their balloons do not go higher. about 2,000 feet above the ground.

“People have always seen balloons flying over Albuquerque and downtown, and those days are over with this new settlement,” Conrad said.

Appelman’s company did $10 million in revenue in three states last year, employs 80 people and is the largest such operation in the United States. He said Rainbow Ryders typically offers about 25,000 rides a year in Albuquerque, with the majority of passengers being tourists.

Appelman emailed the two U.S. senators from New Mexico and asked for help from local and state officials, but so far there are no solutions.

“If we don’t fix that, I could see us having to consider, quite frankly, laying people off,” he said.

Appelman said he hasn’t seen the new FAA rule enforced in other states where he operates, and in Colorado Springs in particular, air traffic control operators and the local hot air balloon community have worked out conditions for the continuation of their operations in the airspace concerned.

The federal rule requiring “automatic-broadcast dependent surveillance” equipment inside certain airspaces went into effect in 2020. Appelman said it wasn’t actively enforced until September 2021.

Surveillance technology is different from transponders that balloonists can temporarily install so they can be seen on radar by air traffic control. According to the rule, it must be permanently integrated into an aircraft’s on-board electrical system.

Balloonists note that their planes do not have permanent electrical systems.

Fiesta officials were told they would get a waiver for the 2022 event, but operations manager Sam Parks said the rule still made flying more difficult for Albuquerque-based balloon companies and recreational pilots who operate year-round.