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Hot air balloonists have been granted a one-year waiver in which they will be able to fly in Albuquerque airspace without having to install an advanced electronic tracking system, according to an updated Federal Aviation Administration policy released Wednesday.
The waiver, in effect through March 2023, is good news for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and local hot air ballooning companies.
“This is huge for New Mexico,” said a joint statement from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, U.S. Sens. Martin Heinrich and Ben Ray Luján, Rep. Melanie Stansbury and Mayor Tim Keller.
“Albuquerque is the ballooning capital of the world. Balloon Fiesta and year-round ballooning are a vital part of Albuquerque’s cultural fabric and economy,” Stansbury said. “Upon hearing that a new FAA rule could threaten this iconic industry, we have been working to resolve this issue. I am grateful to the FAA for working to find a meaningful solution and to the ballooning community who brought it to our attention – and who every day keeps the magic of ballooning in New Mexico alive!”
FAA Regional Administrator Rob Lowe said the agency recognizes “the important role that hot air ballooning plays in New Mexico’s culture,” and the updated policy “enables balloon pilots to continue flying safely in the region while we work on a long-term solution.”
The temporary solution still leaves the question of a long-term, even permanent resolution, regarding the Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast, or ADS-B device, up in the air.
Balloonists will also have to agree to certain procedures and sign a letter of agreement confirming that “they know the proper operational procedures in the Class C airspace” that surrounds Albuquerque.
The function of the device is to provide a better way for aircraft to “see” one another and thereby help keep them safely separated while flying, Sam Parks, operations manager for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, previously told the Journal. He said the regulation requires that the tracking device be integrated into the permanent onboard electrical system of the aircraft. This makes compliance impossible because hot air balloons have no such permanent onboard electrical system.
The FAA rule was likely formulated with fixed-wing aircraft in mind, he suggested. It became effective Jan. 1, 2020, but was not enforced actively until September 2021. The Balloon Fiesta was given a waiver last year, and organizers had requested another one for this year’s event.
Balloon Fiesta Executive Director Paul Smith said Wednesday that getting the waiver for the fiesta was never really an issue.
“We had been told several weeks ago by the FAA that it would waive the ADS-B requirement during fiesta,” he said.
What the mayor, governor and members of the congressional delegation were able to get was a waiver for the rest of the year, “to enable our pilots to identify landing sites and develop the experience and skill to get to those sites.”
Smith expressed his gratitude to everyone involved, including the FAA, for getting the waiver.
According to the updated policy, “The FAA will conduct outreach to the balloon community in Albuquerque to share the letter of agreement with them. The agency will also be available to explain the process and answer questions.”
That outreach will begin this week, and until balloonists sign the agreement they will be in violation if they launch from or fly over the Class C airspace, the FAA said.
Long term, the agency will conduct a “risk-analysis of balloon operation in Class C airspace following implementation of the mandate.”
Further, the FAA in the future has committed to include “stakeholders from the balloon community in this process” as the FAA works to determine the next steps.
The one-year waiver also applies to Colorado Springs airspace, where balloonists also requested exemption from the ADS-B device.
The FAA’s decision follows a February letter to FAA officials from Stansbury, Heinrich and Luján, seeking a solution.
FAA officials were also contacted by Keller and Lujan Grisham.
The initial response from the FAA was that the agency had convened a work group to study the matter.
In the Wednesday joint announcement, Keller said: “When it comes to ballooning and Albuquerque’s traditions, we stand up for our city. We’re grateful for the FAA’s work to find a path forward with us.”
Lujan Grisham also expressed thanks to the FAA.
“The economic and cultural importance of New Mexico’s rightful reputation as the ballooning capital of the world cannot be overstated. I appreciate the FAA’s work to identify a solution, recognizing that Albuquerque’s ballooning community has operated with a dedication to safety for over 50 years,” she said.
“The real winners are the thousands of visitors to New Mexico and the Balloon Fiesta every year.”
Heinrich noted the distinctive flying conditions that make the city a destination for balloonists.
“The unique Albuquerque wind patterns have made hot air ballooning iconic and essential to the industry and our tourism economy,” he said. “This fight was critical to reopen the airspace over Albuquerque. I was proud to work with our delegation to win that fight.”
Luján said ballooning is an important part of New Mexico’s culture and commerce. “It is vital that the FAA provides clarity to hot air balloon professionals and enthusiasts, as their community makes significant contributions to our state’s economy.”
There are five commercial ballooning companies in Albuquerque collectively providing up to 30 combined flights each weekday and up to 130 flights on weekends, said Scott Appelman, owner of Rainbow Ryders, among the biggest hot air ballooning operations in the country.
“I’m thrilled with the FAA’s decision,” he said Wednesday. “We’re looking forward to working with the FAA and air traffic control to develop a process that attains the greatest amount of safety for aviation.”
The ultimate goal, Appelman said, “is to make sure ballooning is not left out when regulations are being made, and without any way to comply.”