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Albuquerque is often touted as the hot air balloon capital of the world, but some in the industry say a new federal rule may be putting the city’s bragging rights at risk.
The Federal Aviation Administration now requires aircraft using certain airspace – including most of what’s above Albuquerque – to have specific tracking technology. The problem? Balloons don’t have it, nor have federal regulators provided standards for how to incorporate it, veteran balloonist Scott Appelman said.
“This will be terminal to the industry, the sport and (the) culture that Albuquerque has been made world-famous for,” said Appelman, founder and president of the 39-year-old Rainbow Ryders ballooning company.
And, he noted, the technology being required “doesn’t apply to hot air balloons. And they have no solution for it.”
The rule has not completely quashed all flights in Albuquerque.
The FAA granted a waiver for last year’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and event officials say they are seeking a similar exemption for this year’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Murray Conrad, who runs his own local ballooning company, said he is still able to use his launch site on the city’s far West Side as long as crews determine the winds will not blow them eastward into the more regulated Albuquerque airspace, and as long as their balloons go no higher than about 2,000 feet off the ground.
But the owner of World Balloon said the rule change remains a “huge problem” as it prevents passengers from getting the expansive views of higher flights and bars pilots from going over more scenic locations, whether it’s the Rio Grande or Downtown.
“People have always seen balloons flying over Albuquerque and over Downtown, and those days are done with this new regulation,” Conrad said.
Rainbow Ryders, which Appelman said did $10 million in sales across three states last year, employs 80 people and is the biggest operation of its kind in the United States. The company has been starting its local flights near Presbyterian Rust Medical Center in Rio Rancho, but Appelman said the available locations around Albuquerque are a poor substitute for the city itself.
He said he’s emailed the state’s U.S. senators, and also sought help from local and state officials – all to no avail so far. He said a local air traffic control official said the agency was trying to find a solution and would circle back with an idea. Appelman said he has heard nothing more.
“We have canceled lots of flights because we can’t fly into that airspace. Now, we’re going into (busy) season,” said Appelman, who said Rainbow Ryders typically provides about 25,000 rides per year in Albuquerque – the overwhelming majority for tourists. “If we don’t get this corrected, I could see us having to look at, quite frankly, laying people off.”
He said he has not seen the new FAA rule enforced in other states where he operates and, in Colorado Springs, specifically, air traffic control operators and the local ballooning community have worked out terms for their continued operations in the affected airspace. Appelman said he’s concerned not only about how his business will fare in Albuquerque, but also about the city’s larger reputation as balloon-friendly.
Conrad said the change has not yet hurt his business – though he worries that disappointed customers expecting a more scenic flight above the river will leave a bad online review – but he, like Appelman, said it could negatively impact the city itself.
“What is Albuquerque known for? Unfortunately, right now, it’s crime and balloons,” he said. “You take balloons out of the equation or separate them out of Albuquerque, what do you get?” Both federal and city offices were closed Monday due to President’s Day, and attempts to get comments from Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller’s office, local air traffic control officials and the FAA were unsuccessful.
The new federal rule requiring “automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast” equipment inside certain airspaces is not actually that new.
It technically took effect Jan. 1, 2020, though Appelman said it was not enforced actively until September 2021.
“It’s kind of been under everyone’s radar until it was brought to our attention by the local FAA office that it was now being enforced here in the Albuquerque Sunport airspace,” said Sam Parks, operations manager for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.
While the rule appears to exempt balloons, Appelman said industry members have referenced the exemption language without success.
‘We can’t comply’
The ADS-B device is different from a transponder that balloonists, particularly gas balloon race competitors, install temporarily so they can be seen on radar by Air Traffic Control.
“Balloons don’t normally fly with transponders on board because it hasn’t been required, unless you are going to be flying through certain, more sensitive areas of the airspace” and, with the new rule, even simple transponders would no longer be enough, Parks said.
The new ADS-B device provides a better way for aircraft to see other aircraft and helps to keep the aircraft separated. “So, instead of having that signal bouncing down to a radar tower on the ground and then bouncing back up to an aircraft that is inbound to the Sunport, it can actually send it directly to the aircraft,” he explained.
But it does not seem to have been written with balloons in mind, Parks said.
According to the rule, the ADS-B device has to be integrated “into the permanent onboard electrical system of the aircraft,” Parks said, and balloons do not have permanent electrical systems.
“It’s not that we don’t want to comply with the regulation, but the way that it’s written, we can’t comply,” Parks said.
Parks and Appelman both note that they know of no instances where a balloon and airplane have come close to colliding.
Fiesta officials were able to obtain an FAA waiver from the new ADS-B requirement for the 2021 Balloon Fiesta, Parks said. “And we’ve been told verbally that we’re going to get this waiver for the 2022 event.”
But, even with a waiver, Parks said the rule makes flying harder for both Albuquerque-based ballooning companies and the recreational pilots who operate year-round. They are now essentially banished to the West Mesa and Rio Rancho.
Appelman said that could be a safety issue come Fiesta. He is concerned that hundreds of pilots will be flying in airspace that is no longer familiar because they have been banned from it the rest of the year.
“I understand that the FAA is out there (focused on safety),” he said. “But not allowing the pilots to fly into the area that we’re going to be flying in at Fiesta will end up setting Balloon Fiesta up with incidents, accidents, or worse, because you (should) practice where you play.”
Parks said safety at Balloon Fiesta is “best achieved by allowing our pilots year-round access to fly and land along the Rio Grande Valley,” and that it has communicated its concerns to both the FAA and the Albuquerque Air Route Traffic Control Center.
Appelman said the status quo represents an existential threat to the local ballooning industry and is diminishing Albuquerque’s title as the world’s ballooning capital.
“I’m worried about (the city’s ballooning reputation). I honestly believe that’s being challenged,” he said of the rule’s effects. “And, as time goes on, as each day clicks off, I believe that it’s threatened more and more.”