NTSB Chair-Hot Air Balloon Pilots-Med Certs Not FAA Burden/ Not Major Expense for Professional Pilots NTSB Chair: FAA not taking correct actions on balloons
Honorable Robert L. Sumwalt, Chairman
“As tragic as the July 30, 2016, hot air balloon crash near Lockhart, Texas, is, it would be equally tragic to have suffered the loss of 16 lives and then not take action to prevent future tragedies.
Apparently, and sadly, not taking action appears to be the position of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
In the 14 months since the accident, the FAA has given no indication that they intend to require air tour balloon pilots to possess a valid FAA medical certificates. This, despite such a requirement for pilots conducting air tours in airplanes and helicopters.
Instead of invoking their regulatory responsibility, five days before NTSB’s board meeting for this accident, the FAA issued a press release to herald what they described as “proactive steps to increase the safety of hot-air balloon tourism.”
The press release stated, “As the result of a year-long FAA ‘Call to Action’ with the commercial hot-air balloon industry, the Balloon Federation of America (BFA) has developed an ‘Envelope of Safety’ accreditation program for the balloon ride operations.”
One of the steps specified by BFA is for commercial balloon pilots to hold an FAA medical certificate.
Although the BFA’s outlined steps seem positive and may provide a greater level of safety for operators who voluntarily choose to comply, I am troubled that the FAA seems to be approaching this as the “be-all, end-all” solution. The FAA has the statutory responsibility to regulate, but here they appear to be abdicating their critically important role.
Voluntary standards such as those outlined by BFA are, by definition, voluntary. Had this BFA program been in effect before the July 30, 2016, crash, it is doubtful that this pilot would have attempted to meet those guidelines. After all, he was not a member of BFA. Furthermore, he had a record of skirting even the minimal regulatory requirements for balloon operations. Had he been required to periodically undergo an FAA medical exam, his alcohol and drug-related convictions, as well as his disqualifying medical conditions and drug use, would have been detected. These conditions would have prevented him from legally piloting a balloon.
For these reasons, the FAA must not rely solely on voluntary third-party guidelines. Instead, they must step up to the plate and do their job. That regulatory function begins with the FAA requiring commercial balloon pilots to possess a valid FAA medical certificate. Until then, the FAA is simply abandoning its responsibility to maximize safety for balloon passengers.
Robert L. Sumwalt is chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
In response to some NTSB recommendations, it is sometimes said that the Board has all of the visibility of a safety regulatory, if not more, but none of the responsibility. The frequent next refrain is that the solution offered by the Members and their staff will not pass the OMB-mandated benefit/cost test (Circular A-94) and thus will be blocked from publication.
It appears that Chairman Sumwalt’s proposal may overcome both objections:
- Medical examinations are NOT performed by FAA staff. Most of the workload is born by Aviation Medical Examiners. The FAA must only keep track of which pilots have/have not received their certificate.
- The individual costs of such examinations will be set against the lives of balloon passengers who may be saved by this requirement. As with any regulatory number, the actual and collateral benefits can be derived to exceed the costs.
The recent debate about the requirement imposed on GA pilots being required to get their annual physical is inapposite. Congress imposed a deletion of this “burden” after heavy lobbying and it appeared that both the FAA and NTSB staffs were not pleased with this deregulation. There is a discernible distinction between the BasicMed and this situation is that any Part 91 pilot may not be flying for compensation or hire.
As Chairman Sumwalt notes the BFA/FAA program is voluntary and individual pilots may opt not to follow the recommendation there that they hold a medical certificate. An FAA mandate would create a basis for enforcement, but the even more rigorous criteria applied to commercial pilots sometimes fail to deter drugs and alcohol. A regulation will not preclude a future accident.
That said, the Chairman’s proposal seems, on balance, to be worthwhile.
In any event, Rep. Lloyd Doggett (D-Texas), who represents the district where the crash occurred, has been pushing the FAA to strengthen its hot air balloon laws and require that pilots get medical certificates before they are allowed to operate a hot air balloon.
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