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.

 

From Cornyn, a border security plan less Trumpian, more Texas-friendly

Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn points to a poster with an image of barrier on the Texas-Mexico border as he announces his border security plan Thursday on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo)

For President Trump, a border wall is a signature piece of his domestic agenda, of such magnitude to him politically that he fumed with Mexican President Peña Nieto and pleaded with him to stop saying Mexico wouldn’t pay for it. More on that later.

For U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, however, a border wall is important, but it’s not everything.

“It’s not the whole story,” the Republican Texas senator said Thursday as he presented his $15 billion border security plan that relies more on personnel and technology and less on a wall than the president might like.

As Maria Recio reported in the American-Statesman, Cornyn’s border plan calls for a layered strategy of walls, fencing, levees and technology. Called the Building America’s Trust Act, the bill would increase the number of federal agents at ports of entry and on the border, as well as add more immigration judges and prosecutors. It also would pour more resources into state and local efforts to fight drug trafficking.

VIEWPOINTS: Jobs, not ‘sanctuary’ policies beckon immigrants to U.S.

Cornyn’s plan brings a more reasoned alternative to Trump’s one-size-fits-all, build a border wall approach. It is also likely to go over better with Texans who oppose a wall for a number of reasons, not the least of which is some people just don’t think it’s necessary. Many of those critics live along the border, a point Cornyn subtly referenced when he said federal authorities should consult local officials in shaping border strategy.

That’s something you hear a lot in South Texas and up and down the border, where some residents feel they’ve become a requisite photo op for politicians who swoop in for an hour or two to assess border security — as if that’s all it takes — then return to their respective homes in faraway states. That’s what Trump the presidential candidate did in a 2015 visit to Laredo.

It’ll be interesting to see how Cornyn’s bill progresses and whether it receives bipartisan support. As a border senator and majority whip, he holds considerable sway in Congress and on the fortunes of any border security measure.

‘You cannot say that to the press.’

Trump paved a path to the White House in no small measure on his boastful promise to build a “beautiful” border wall.

“And who’s going to pay for it?” Trump would ask delirious supporters at campaign rallies.

“Mexico will!” they would roar in response.

But leaked transcripts of a January phone call between Trump and Peña Nieto reveal the president knew Mexico would never pay for the wall and that his demand for payment was just a political play. More importantly, he wanted the Mexican president to stop saying publicly that Mexico wouldn’t pay for a wall.

Trump acknowledged that his public posturing on the wall had left him in an extremely tight spot politically.

“The fact is we are both in a little bit of a political bind, because I have to have Mexico pay for the wall – I have to,” Trump told Peña Nieto in the call.

When Peña Nieto kept insisting that Mexico wouldn’t pay, Trump said: “You cannot say that to the press. The press is going to go with that and I cannot live with that.”

Trump later said the border wall is not all that important – remarkable considering all his bluster about it.

“Believe it or not, this is the least important thing that we are talking about, but politically this might be the most important (thing we) talk about,” Trump said.

Trump has steered away more recently from demanding that Mexico pay. He’s asked Congress for a $1.6 billion down payment for the wall, which the House has approved. Mexico will “reimburse” the U.S., Trump has said, without offering details on how that might happen.

That all sounds fuzzy. One thing is clear from that January phone call, however: Mexico won’t pay for the wall, and Trump knows it.

That means — and let’s face it, we knew this all along — American taxpayers will foot the bill, which the Department of Homeland Security says could hit $21.6 billion. Will Trump’s supporters still cheer?

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Three GOP senators help save the day for nation’s healthcare

WASHINGTON, DC – JULY 28: Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) leaves the the Senate chamber at the U.S. Capitol after voting on the GOP ‘Skinny Repeal’ health care bill on July 28, 2017 in Washington, DC. Three Senate Republicans voted no to block a stripped-down, or ‘Skinny Repeal,’ version of Obamacare reform. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

 

Early Friday morning, in the well of the U.S. Senate, President Donald Trump and his band of playground bullies finally met their match: Two women and a real man.

The trio, Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and John McCain of Arizona, all Republicans, joined a unified Democratic opposition to kill the so-called “skinny repeal” of Obamacare, 51-48.

For now and perhaps for good, in one of the most dramatic votes witnessed in recent years, the seven-year push by the GOP to repeal and replace or simply repeal the Affordable Care Act has collapsed.

The failed effort paves the way for something incredible to happen that Americans have been clamoring for in their government: A bipartisan approach to fixing the nation’s healthcare system. As we said in previous editorials, Obamacare needs to be shored up, stabilizing insurance markets that have in some places abandoned consumers or left them with few insurers to choose from. Premiums for middle- or upper-income earners also need to be curbed.

The GOP’s skinny repeal, orchestrated in secret by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, was anything but skinny: As it was laid out, it would have caused chaos in the health insurance markets and premiums to soar, mostly by eliminating the mandate for Americans to buy or get health insurance, but also by wiping out the medical device tax.

Without mandates and penalties to back them up, many people, and particularly younger and healthier Americans, likely would forego health insurance or buy scaled down insurance. Such a system defies the basic principles of insurance that spreads risk among all – young, old and healthy and sick – to keep premiums and costs manageable.

In all, 16 million additional people would be without health insurance by 2026, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. The CBO also estimated that premiums in the individual market would increase by 20 percent compared to current law in all years between 2018 and 2026.

Without a true fix, the GOP led by Trump had to resort to masquerade plans that were dressed up to look like something they weren’t. Desperate to keep promises made over seven years, including by Trump on the campaign trail, they threw anything out. But in the end, nothing stuck to the Senate wall.

All of the proposals Republicans forwarded would have resulted in tens of millions of Americans losing coverage with the working poor, disabled, and folks with preexisting conditions and middle-aged — who are too young for Medicare and too rich for Medicaid — bearing the loss. That should have been unacceptable to McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan.

But they rolled over for Trump and his minions who took to Twitter with intimidating tweets to Collins and Murkowski, challenges to duels (I wish I were making that up) and threats of holding up federal aid or economic initiatives to Alaska to punish Murkowski for her steadfast opposition to GOP plans.

The ladies demonstrated the kind of leadership the nation needs – and has longed for — to deal with complex issues, particularly in fixing the nation’s healthcare system. Their leadership was a huge contrast with Trump’s governance by intimidation, browbeating and humiliation.

Vice President Mike Pence, who evermore takes on the presence of a sycophant for Trump, showed up in the Senate on Friday to break the tie. But his vote was unnecessary. Collins and Murkowski cast their votes as voting began at 1:24 a.m. McCain in high drama kept his vote under wraps from the public until 1:29 a.m., when he walked on the Senate floor, approached the Senate clerk and gave a thumbs down.

Following his vote, McCain told reporters that he thought voting no “was the right thing to do.”

Explaining his vote, the ailing McCain, who will face a tough road ahead as he is treated for brain cancer, signaled that healthcare reform should be done through bipartisan efforts. He is correct.

“I’ve stated time and time again that one of the major failures of Obamacare was that it was rammed through Congress by Democrats on a strict party-line basis without a single Republican vote.”

“We should not make the mistakes of the past.”

No one knows for sure where things go from here. Unfortunately, the GOP healthcare replacements, bad as they are, seem to rise from the grave like Lazarus.

But for a moment, the nation witnessed a splendid act with two women and a real man standing for what is right against powerful playground bullies. The three put country over politics.

That is what courage and strength look like.

Trump doubles down on a border wall, and a government shutdown looms

The border fence between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico.
The border fence between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. (The New York Times)

 

What are we to make of Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist extraordinaire who is embroiled in a child custody battle in a Travis County courtroom? His attorney wants us to believe Jones’ bombastic on-air persona is merely performance art – just for show, folks, that’s all. Jones, however, asserts no trickery is involved.

A far cry from President Trump, another well-known figure known for his crowd-pleasing bluster. You can count on Trump meaning what he says. Well, except for when he doesn’t.

Take for instance the president’s recent flip-flop on NATO, the trans-Atlantic alliance Trump called “obsolete” throughout the campaign and as recently as last month. The president declared then that NATO “doesn’t cover terrorism,” which isn’t true.

But earlier this month, as he stood with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, Trump had a sudden change of heart. “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete,” the president said, explaining that NATO made a change and now fights terrorism. The record says otherwise; as the Washington Post noted, NATO has been active in counterterrorism since 1980, even moreso since 9/11.

The newspaper has taken to calling Trump the “king of flip-flops.” Like the Post, a number of news organizations routinely chronicle the president’s many 180-degree turns on policy.

But there is one policy position where the president isn’t showing any signs of budging or flip-flopping – his vision of a border wall.

On Thursday Trump doubled down on one of his signature campaign pledges. He wants Congress to add money for a new wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border to a massive spending bill, potentially forcing a government shutdown. As the Chicago Tribune reported:

Trump’s request, outlined in conversations with White House officials and in a memo from budget director Mick Mulvaney, calls for $33 billion in new defense and border spending — and $18 billion in cuts to other priorities, such as medical research and jobs programs.

RELATED: A border wall riddled with holes in logic 

RELATED: Why the border wall fences us in

A partial government shutdown would begin April 29 if the spending bill isn’t passed.

White House budget director Mick Mulvaney told The Associated Press that Democratic negotiators on the spending bill need to sign on to funding the president’s priorities, including a down payment on a border wall and hiring more immigration agents.

“Elections have consequences,” Mulvaney said. “We want wall funding.”
Mulvaney said the Trump administration knows many in Congress, especially Democrats, don’t like the wall, “but they lost the election.”

More Americans opposed (62 percent) than favored (35 percent) building a wall, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in February.

A partial government shutdown is never popular and at least for now, it appears few in Congress share the White House’s desire to flirt with one, though some Democrats vow to oppose the wall and even some conservative Republicans object, though on fiscal grounds.

The Department of Homeland Security pegs the cost of a wall at up to $21.6 billion. Trump famously vowed throughout his campaign to make Mexico pay for the wall. That’s obviously not in the cards. Was it ever, really?

With the spectre of a government shutdown looming, some on Capitol Hill expect a bipartisan spending bill will emerge by next week’s end, and that a vote on funding for the wall will come in a separate spending bill later this year.

One thing is clear: Trump administration requests to fund the wall aren’t going away. The president is adamant about fulfilling his vision of a “big, beautiful border wall.”

 

 

 

 

Tell us your Affordable Care Act story

Dozens of Affordable Care Act supporters gather for a rally held Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, in downtown St. Joseph, Mich.(Don Campbell/ The Herald-Palladium via AP)
Dozens of Affordable Care Act supporters gather for a rally held Saturday, Jan. 28, 2017, in downtown St. Joseph, Mich.(Don Campbell/ The Herald-Palladium via AP)

 

President Donald Trump and the Republican Congress are preparing to repeal the Affordable Care Act, aka, “Obamacare.” At this point they have not crafted a replacement. We’d like to hear from you about your personal experiences with the Affordable Care Act.

We believe your stories can help inform policymakers on this important topic.

You can submit your story as a Letter to the Editor using our online form or by sending an email to letters@statesman.com (no more than 150 words , please). Don’t forget to include your full name, address and daytime and evening phone numbers.

Our goal is to publish a full page of those stories we receive. Your first-hand accounts will help foster understanding about how Central Texans are using or not using the Affordable Care Act and whether it should be refined, replaced or eliminated.

Do you agree with Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim countries?

Demonstrators gather in solidarity against President Donald Trump's executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. and suspending the nation’s refugee program Monday, Jan. 30, 2017, outside City Hall in Cincinnati. In addition, earlier in the day Mayor John Cranley declared Cincinnati a "sanctuary city," meaning city will not enforce federal immigration laws against people who are here illegally, in keeping with current policy. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Demonstrators in Cincinnati gather on January 30 in solidarity against President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S. and suspending the nation’s refugee program (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Unsurprisingly, criticism of President Donald Trump’s executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States has been swift and harsh.

There’s enough in the ban to criticize: From the void of American values of defending the marginalized “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to the legally questionable practice of targeting and discrimination of a single religious group. It may be billed as a tool against terrorism, but the danger in its text serves more as a fan to inflame radical-Islamic enemies.

Critics – as well as thousands of protestors across the country, including here in Austin – aren’t standing idly by.

The New York Times, just one of many editorial boards across the nation quick to call out Trump on the order, calls the ban a “bigoted, cowardly, self-defeating policy.”

And then points out that the “breathtaking in scope and inflammatory in tone” order issued on Holocaust Remembrance Day, no less, lacks any logic. “It invokes the attacks of Sept. 11 as a rationale, while exempting the countries of origin of all the hijackers who carried out that plot and also, perhaps not coincidentally, several countries where the Trump family does business.”

Civil rights activist and Baptist preacher Jesse Jackson makes similar comments and adds that Trump’s policy will make it more dangerous for American Muslims here in the U.S. while it also makes for excellent ISIS recruitment material.

“The real problem is that the unintended consequences are likely to be far more dangerous than doing nothing. For ISIS and al-Qaida, the order is a gift. It feeds their argument that the Muslim world is facing a war on Islam led by the Great Satan (the U.S.) intent on persecuting Muslims.

“The anger and hatred generated will make it more difficult for moderate Muslim leaders to cooperate with the U.S. At home, a Muslim community under siege — and faced with rising hate crimes — is likely to become more closed, not less, and less cooperative, not more. If we will not respect their rights and security, they will be less likely to be concerned for ours,” Jackson wrote.

Not everyone, however, is a critic.

Jack Hunter, of the conservative-libertarian Rare.us, points out the hypocrisy in some of Trump’s critics regarding the ban.

“Why is this kind of outrage seemingly now just limited to Donald Trump?”

He says, for example, “The Los Angeles Times featured a story on Sunday about Alexander Gutierrez Garcia, who fled an oppressive dictatorship to seek refugee status in the United States, but unfortunately for him America’s president issued an executive order that denied him entry.

“That order came from President Barack Obama.”

Hunter continues: “So many of those outraged right now — and rightly — generally liked Obama. They trusted him. Now, similarly, Trump supporters will defend this president’s actions, no matter how much harm he causes, because they like and trust him too.

“But shouldn’t other people’s pain come before partisanship? …Shouldn’t lending our moral support or outrage be based on something more than merely what presidents we like?”

Plenty of others have and will weigh in on the issue. And no doubt, some of those opinions will make it onto our Viewpoint pages. But right now, we want to know what YOU think of all of this by taking our single-question poll (above and below).