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Albuquerque is often touted as the hot air balloon capital of the world, but some industry players say a new federal rule could jeopardize the city’s bragging rights.
The Federal Aviation Administration now requires aircraft using certain airspace — including most of what is over Albuquerque — to have specific tracking technology. The problem? Balloons don’t have it, and federal regulators haven’t provided standards for how to incorporate it, veteran balloonist Scott Appelman said.
“It will be the terminal for industry, sport and (the) culture that Albuquerque has been made world famous for,” said Appelman, 39-year-old founder and chairman of hot air balloon company Rainbow Ryders.
And, he noted, the required technology “does not apply to hot air balloons. And they don’t have a solution for that.
The rule did not completely cancel all flights to Albuquerque.
The FAA granted a waiver for last year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and event officials say they are seeking a similar waiver for this year’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Murray Conrad, who runs his own local hot air balloon business, said he was still able to use his launch site in the far west of town as long as crews determine the winds won’t blow them up. is in the more restricted airspace of Albuquerque, and as long as their balloons do not exceed approximately 2,000 feet above the ground.
But the owner of World Balloon said the rule change remains a ‘huge problem’ as it prevents passengers from getting great views on higher flights and prevents pilots from getting to more scenic locations than this. either the Rio Grande or downtown.
“People have always seen balloons flying over Albuquerque and downtown, and those days are over with this new settlement,” Conrad said.
Rainbow Ryders, which Appelman said made $10 million in revenue in three states last year, employs 80 people and is the largest such company in the United States. The company began local flights near Rust Presbyterian Medical Center in Rio Rancho, but Appelman said available locations around Albuquerque were a poor substitute for the city itself.
He said he emailed U.S. state senators and also asked local and state officials for help — to no avail so far. He said a local air traffic control official said the agency was trying to find a solution and would come back with an idea. Appelman says he heard nothing more.
“We have canceled many flights because we cannot fly in this airspace. Now we’re entering a (busy) season,” said Appelman, who said Rainbow Ryders typically offers about 25,000 rides per year in Albuquerque — the overwhelming majority for tourists. “If we don’t fix that, I could see us having to consider, quite frankly, laying people off.”
He 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. Appelman said he was worried not only about how his business would fare in Albuquerque, but also about the city’s broader reputation as a hot air balloon.
Conrad said the change hasn’t hurt his business yet – although he’s worried that disappointed customers expecting a more scenic flight over the river might leave a bad review online – but he , like Appelman, said it could have a negative impact on the city itself.
“Why is Albuquerque famous? Unfortunately, right now it’s crime and balloons,” he said. “You take the balloons out of the equation or separate them from Albuquerque, what do you get?” Federal and city offices were closed on Monday due to President’s Day, and attempts to get comment from Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s office, local air traffic control officials and the FAA were unsuccessful. .
The new federal rule requiring “automatic-broadcast dependent surveillance” equipment inside certain airspaces isn’t exactly new.
It technically went into effect on January 1, 2020, though Appelman said it wasn’t actively enforced until September 2021.
“It was kind of under everyone’s radar until the local FAA office let us know it was now enforced here in Albuquerque Sunport airspace,” said Sam Parks, director of operations for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
While the rule appears to exempt balloons, Appelman said industry members have referenced the wording of the exemption to no avail.
“We Can’t Comply”
ADS-B is different from a transponder that balloonists, especially gas balloon racing competitors, temporarily install so they can be seen on radar by air traffic control.
“Balloons don’t normally fly with transponders on board because it wasn’t required unless you’re going to fly in certain more sensitive areas of airspace” and with the new rule even simple transponders won’t would be more than enough, says Parks.
The new ADS-B feature provides a better way for aircraft to see other aircraft and helps keep aircraft separated. “So instead of that signal bouncing off a radar tower on the ground and then bouncing off an aircraft heading towards the Sunport, it can actually send it directly to the aircraft,” he explained.
But it doesn’t appear to have been written with balloons in mind, Parks said.
According to the rule, the ADS-B device must be integrated “into the aircraft’s permanent on-board electrical system,” Parks said, and balloons do not have permanent electrical systems.
“It’s not that we don’t want to comply with the rules, but the way it’s written, we can’t comply,” Parks said.
Both Parks and Appelman note that they know of no instances where a balloon and an airplane have nearly collided.
Fiesta officials were able to obtain an FAA waiver of the new ADS-B requirement for Balloon Fiesta 2021, Parks said. “And we were told verbally that we were going to get that waiver for the 2022 event.”
But, even with a waiver, Parks said the rule makes flying more difficult for Albuquerque-based balloon companies and recreational pilots who operate year-round. They are now basically banished to West Mesa and Rio Rancho.
Appelman said it could be a safety issue during Fiesta. He fears hundreds of pilots will be flying in airspace they are no longer familiar with because they have been banned from it for the rest of the year.
“I understand the FAA is out there (focused on safety),” he said. “But not allowing pilots to fly in the area we’re going to fly Fiesta in will end up creating Balloon Fiesta with incidents, crashes or worse, because you (should) practice where you play.”
Parks said safety at Balloon Fiesta is “best assured by allowing our pilots year-round access to fly and land along the Rio Grande Valley,” and that he raised his concerns with both at the FAA and at the Albuquerque Air Traffic Control Center.
Appelman said the status quo poses an existential threat to the local ballooning industry and diminishes Albuquerque’s title as the ballooning capital of the world.
“I’m worried about (the city’s inflated reputation). I honestly believe that is disputed,” he said of the effects of the rule. “And, over time, as each day goes by, I believe it is more and more threatened.”