As authorities investigate a hot air balloon crash that killed 16 people in Texas, experienced pilots say consumers should check out companies and pilots offering hot air balloon rides before taking to the air.
Dean Carlton, president of the Balloon Federation of America, said there are approximately 200 full-time balloon tour operators in the United States, as well as hundreds of smaller firms. The federation's Professional Ride Operators Division establishes safety protocols, ethics and business practices for the industry.
Alfred "Skip" Nichols, the pilot of the balloon that hit high-tension power lines Saturday near Lockhart, Texas, was not a current member of either the federation or the division.
The Associated Press spoke to Carlton and three pilots, each with more than three decades of experience operating hot air balloons, to ask what consumers should do to research companies.
Here are some of their tips:
— Hire a licensed operator who owns and flies the balloon you'll ride in. Pilots recommend dealing directly with owners, rather than ride brokers who merely sell gift or ride certificates.
— Find out how long the company has been in business. Ask for the names of its pilots and their experience level. The Federal Aviation Administration requires a minimum of 35 hours of flying time for commercial hot air balloon pilots, but look for pilots with hundreds or even thousands of hours.
— Ask the company to show you its business license, a copy of its insurance policy and pilot certificates.
— Ask to see the aircraft logbook, which should include detailed information on the balloon, when it was last inspected and if any repairs were done.
— Spend some time watching the company's operation and a takeoff or landing. Look for an organized, professional approach and the use of checklists.
— Ask for references from customers and search online review sites to find consumer reviews. Complaints about flight cancelations due to bad weather may actually signal that a company is safety conscious and not taking a chance flying in windy conditions or other dangerous weather.
— Ask if any of the company's pilots has ever been refused insurance or has been required to file a report with the FAA or the National Transportation Safety Board.
— Check with the Better Business Bureau about any consumer complaints.