With hundreds of millions of dollars at stake each year — not to mention the city’s reputation as the hot air balloon capital of the world — Albuquerque has too much to do with airspace waiver requests.
A new FAA rule requires aircraft using Albuquerque Sunport airspace — a large chunk of the sky above the city — to have specific tracking technology known as “surveillance” equipment. dependent auto-broadcast”. But, as anyone who’s flown them knows, hot air balloons don’t have seatbelts, much less a “permanent on-board electrical system” into which ADS-B devices can be integrated.
Sam Parks, director of operations for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, says it appears the federal agency wrote the rule without considering the balloons. This is not the first well-meaning general federal mandate that ignores state scenarios. Remember the 55 mph national speed limit from 1973 to 1995 that ignored large swaths of freeway across unpopulated America and had mixed safety results?
“It’s not that we don’t want to comply with the rules,” Parks explains, “but the way it’s written, we can’t comply.”
Fiesta officials say the 2019 event, the last for which there are economic estimates, generated a total economic impact of $186 million for the city and state. That’s a lot of money – not to mention the thrills of a lifetime – put in jeopardy by a new tracking rule designed to prevent mid-air collisions.
Of which there have been exactly none involving a balloon and an airplane in the fiesta’s five-decade history.
Apart from the annual two-week event, recreational pilots and hot air balloon companies offer year-round rides for tourists, as well as locals celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, weddings, etc. Scott Appelman, founder and president of Albuquerque-based Rainbow Ryders, the nation’s largest commercial hot air balloon operation, says the company typically offers 25,000 rides a year in Albuquerque. But, now Rainbow Ryders has to cancel flights due to the FAA’s rule prohibiting balloons from flying over the city without the new tracking equipment.
Thanks to the new rule, local Rainbow Ryder pilots are essentially banned from West Mesa and Rio Rancho for launches, depriving customers of spectacular views of Albuquerque and the Rio Grande Valley. Appelman fears the waivers will cause safety issues, as balloon pilots will be relegated for 50 weeks of the year outside of Albuquerque airspace and have a steep learning curve on the city during the remaining two weeks of high-level fiesta. It’s ‘(s) setting up Balloon Fiesta with mishaps, crashes or worse because you (should) practice where you play.
World Balloon owner Murray Conrad says he can still use his launch site in the far west of the city – if crews determine the winds won’t blow them east and as long as their balloons don’t not exceed 2000 feet. But that prevents passengers from getting a great view on higher flights and keeps balloons above less scenic places.
Mayor Tim Keller wrote to a local Federal Aviation Administration official asking for a waiver of the new onboard tracking system rule, similar to last year’s waiver, and was told the FAA had convened a working group to study the issue.
It’s a beginning. But Albuquerque needs more than a two-week reprieve with having to come back every year, hat in hand. Hot air ballooning is more than a huge industry here; it is part of the cultural fabric of the city.
The senses. Americans Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, and U.S. Representative Melanie Stansbury wrote Thursday to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson and Albuquerque Air Traffic Control Tower Director Stephen J. Bond expressing their concerns. “This is problematic for hot air balloons, whose electrical structure cannot accommodate this type of tracking equipment,” they write. “Although (the new rule) is an understandable concern for fixed-wing aircraft such as airplanes and helicopters, it is not warranted for hot air balloons.”
And they emphasize that the safety that the tracking equipment is designed to provide is not in question: “Since the inception of the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta nearly 50 years ago, balloon pilots have used the rules of visual flight to ensure their safety and that of their passengers. Using these rules, there were no mid-air balloon-aircraft collisions in Albuquerque.
Appelman says that in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Rainbow Ryders also operates, air traffic control operators and the local balloon community have developed conditions for continued balloon operations in the affected airspace. Heinrich, Luján and Stansbury are asking for a permanent year-round waiver, similar to that given to the Colorado Springs balloon community. The new rule gives air traffic control the discretion to grant deviations from the ADS-B tracking requirement.
Given that Albuquerque is home to the world’s premier hot air balloon festival, the national and international attention it garners, the tens of thousands of visitors it attracts, and the lack of balloon safety concerns, a permanent waiver is a common sense solution.
This industry adds so much energy and excitement to the city and its skies. We join the call asking the FAA to show our balloonists some love and grant the permanent waiver as soon as possible.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned because it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than that of the editors.