It’s time for FAA to pass stricter hot air balloon pilot regulations

Law enforcement and investigative teams examine the scene of a hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people near Lockhart, Texas, on Saturday, July 30, 2016. (RODOLFO GONZALEZ / AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded during a hearing on last week that lack of oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of commercial balloon pilots contributed to the deadly balloon crash two years ago in Lockhart, which killed 15 paying passengers and the balloon pilot.

The loss of so many lives might have been avoided on July 30, 2016 had stricter FAA safety regulations been in place — as suggested in 2013 by its own agency safety investigator and by the NTSB in 2014. Since the tragic incident, family members of the victims and state lawmakers also have called for improved safety regulations.

Unfortunately, many don’t expect the FAA to act on families’ requests or the NTSB recommendation. One sign that the agency might be reluctant to act, experts say, is the aviation agency’s recently appointed deputy administrator, Dan Elwell. Elwell previously served on the Trump administration’s “deregulation team,” tasked with reducing the number of federal government regulations.

It’s shameful that the FAA didn’t budge after its own safety experts recommended change four years ago.  It will be incomprehensible if it doesn’t act now.

A cocktail of prescription drugs — including oxycodone, Valium and enough Benadryl to approximate the effects of drunken driving — contributed to pilot Alfred “Skip” Nichols’ pattern of poor decision-making that caused the crash in Lockhart, an NTSB investigation found. Safety board officials also found Nichols had a lengthy criminal history involving drunken driving and drug convictions that he never disclosed to the FAA.

During last Tuesday’s hearing, the NTSB recommended that the FAA require medical checks for commercial balloon pilots — as it does for helicopter and airplane pilots. Currently, the FAA only requires that balloon pilots be certified and their balloons be regularly inspected by authorities.

Medical checks detect the use of prohibited medications, potentially impairing medical conditions and any history of driving while intoxicated.

The FAA shouldn’t just “carefully consider” the NTSB recommendation, as it stated after the hearing. It should rush to implement it.

Until now, the FAA has not articulated why their rules exempt hot air balloon pilots from medical certificate requirements.  Countries such as England, Canada and Australia require the certificates for their balloon pilots, the American-Statesman’s Jeremy Schwartz reported.

Instead, most safety measures enacted in the ballooning industry have come from a Balloon Federation of America (BFA) volunteer program designed for its member pilots. Pilots who participate in the program are assigned one of three levels of safety accreditation defined by the safety requirements the pilot has met. Consumers can use the program to select a hot air balloon ride company or pilot based on those safety accreditations.

It’s a great effort by the BFA. However, the program, though comprehensive, doesn’t apply to every balloon pilot. Some balloon pilots — like Nichols in the Lockhart case — aren’t BFA members.

Balloon customers need to know that their pilot’s track record and experience is trustworthy, regardless of association membership.

Why isn’t the FAA implementing the NTSB’s recommendation?

In 2013, an FAA safety inspector raised balloon pilot concerns and made suggestions similar to those later made by the NTSB. FAA Chief Michael Huerta overruled the FAA safety inspector’s recommendations. Why? High cost and low risk, the The Wall Street Journal reported.

It’s true. The risk of hot air balloon accidents is low and fatal hot air-balloon incidents are rare.

Between 1964 and 2014 — before the Lockhart crash — balloon crashes killed a total of 114 people in 67 incidents in the U.S., according to a National Transportation Safety Board database.

The deadliest air balloon accident prior to Lockhart occurred in February 2013 when a hot air balloon caught fire over Luxor, Egypt killing 19 of the 21 people on board.

Human error is bound to lead to accidents without stricter pilot regulations in place. Requiring medical certificates, as the NTSB recommends, is one way to lower that human error probability.

Meaningful action taken now by FAA would further minimize the risk of fatal balloon incidents.

But as I mentioned, not many believe the FAA will act on potentially life-saving recommendations.

State Rep. John Cyrier, a Republican representing Lockhart, said last week that there’s no question in his mind that it will require an act of Congress to enact the safety board’s recommendations. “It’s going to take citizens and everyone involved to ask their congressmen to make this happen,” he said.

The FAA shouldn’t let it come to that.