The tragic hot air balloon accident in Egypt that killed at least 19 people and injured two others has thrust the safety of hot air balloons into the international spotlight and has shaken the public's trust of tour operators.
While hot air balloon accidents rare, accidents like the one in Eqypt have resulted in a number of fiery deaths over the years.
In August 2012 six people were killed and 26 injured when a hot air caught fire and crashed near the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana. Earlier that year, a hot air balloon struck power lines near Carterton, New Zealand and exploded, killing all 11 people on board. And in 2009 four Dutch tourists were killed in Guangxi, China, after pilots lost control and their hot air balloon burst into flames and crashed.
“Most of the time balloon accidents are not fatal. Most of the time they’re high wind incidents resulting in broken arm or leg,” Michael Gerred, the president of balloon operator Light Flight in Maryland, told FoxNew.com.
Initial reports from Egypt say the accident occurred after a cable got caught around a helium tube while the balloon was landing. A fire erupted, according to an investigator with Egypt’s state prosecutor's office, which caused the balloon to shoot up in the air in a fiery ball and then plunge some 1,000 feet to the ground.
While it’s too early to say who’s at fault, some industry experts caution that in countries like Egypt and Burma where hot balloon rides over the ancient temples and rivers are the cornerstone of the tourist trade, highly experienced pilots from the U.K. or the U.S. are increasingly being replaced by locals who may not have the same level of experience.
There are no international standards that regulate the ballooning industry, and tour companies must adhere only to safety regulations imposed by each country. In developing countries, the regulations are more lax than those in the U.S. or the U.K., although most large operators follow the stricter U.S. and U.K. safety guidelines.
But if you’re considering a hot air balloon excursion, how do you know if a company you’re booking is trustworthy or not?
Gerred says one of the biggest obstacles when booking a hot air balloon trip overseas is finding the tour company’s safety record and information about the pilots.“To find the level of experience is next to impossible. The best thing to do is go through a reputable company.”
Austin-Lehman Adventures owner and founder Dan Austin says one thing you can do is to look for a fully insured tour operator. They must have a crisis management plan for emergency scenarios–and practice it regularly—a requirement for the top insurance company.
If you’re booking a hot air balloon excursion in the U.S. finding information about an outfit or pilot is much easier. The Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses and regulates all balloon pilots, has a database which enables users to look up pilots by name. In addition, the National Transportation Safety Board keeps accident records that are available to the public.
Austin says to start your research by first creating a short list of potential tour operators. “Google is your friend. Pour through your travel magazines. They often list the ‘best of the best’ in special annual editions. Look for them online.”
Gerred says not to be afraid to pick up and phone and ask the company about its safety record and if it ever had an accident. He advises looking for a company that has multiple pilots who’ve had five or more years’ experience.
Some good questions to ask are:
How long they’ve been in business.
Do they run their own tours or outsource them to others?
What is the average group size (there are regulations on the amount of people you can have in the basket at one time)?
Do they own their own equipment or rent it?
Also ask them to give you referrals, and find out about deposit and cancellation policies.
Austin says the key is to track all interactions. ”If a company fails to get back to you in a timely manner and/or answer your questions accurately and thoroughly, do you really want to trust your vacation to them?” Bottom line, they should handle their customers like their business.
And one final bit of advice, consider a good travel insurance plan. While situations beyond your control do arise, making sure you have access to a medical evacuation if you need it will give you peace of mind.