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Balloon wars heating up

Rick Chandler

People around town are calling it the Hot Air Balloon Wars, but don’t come around Mark Boulet with that kind of talk. The owner of Balloons Over Lake Tahoe is trying to, well, rise above the fray.

“There are only two balloon companies in town, and I don’t see why we can’t get along,” said Boulet, whose company has been hosting hot air balloon tours over Lake Tahoe for six years. “There are only a handful of balloonists in the nation, and they tend to be a very tight-knit community. But not here.”

Indeed, the respective owners of South Lake Tahoe’s two balloon companies are anything but the best of pals. Try instead the Hatfields and McCoys.

OK, that’s not entirely accurate … for his part, Boulet contends that this feud is all one-sided, with his side trying to live and let live. But the owner of the other company, Bob Allen of Lake Tahoe Balloons, Inc., contends that Boulet is somewhat of a menace whose flight practices need to be altered before someone gets hurt.

Who is right, and who is just blowing hot air?

Here’s the story: Boulet, who ran a successful hot-air balloon business in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for 17 years, arrived in Lake Tahoe in 1993 and set up his business here. Operating primarily in the spring and summer, Boulet would take passengers on rides over Lake Tahoe – making it the only balloon outfit in the nation with a primary flight path over an inland body of water.

Boulet lifts off from the South Lake Tahoe airport and catches the prevailing wind currents to the lake. From there, he touches down and lifts off several times from a 40-foot catamaran on the lake, taking up six people at a time.

Now enter Allen, who had been running a similar operation out of Minden, Nev., with tours over the Carson Valley. In 1995, Allen set up his own balloon operation to cruise over Lake Tahoe, but his was a little different. Instead of operating from a land base, Allen spent a considerable sum to construct a 100-foot catamaran/barge, so that his balloon lifts off and lands only on the lake.

So, isn’t this town big enough for two hot air balloons?

Here’s the problem: Allen claims that Boulet is flaunting Federal Aviation Administration and Coast Guard regulations right and left, citing what Allen calls “unsafe practices.” And if Boulet causes an accident of some kind, says Allen, the resulting backlash from agencies such as the FAA and the TRPA would shut down both businesses.

In catching the jet stream from the airport to the lake every morning, Boulet’s balloon cruises at altitudes sometimes as low as 200 feet – well below the federally mandated ceiling for such flights, according to Allen.

“It’s simply unsafe,” Allen said. “A balloon contains 60 gallons of propane. If he were to hit a power line or a car, the tank could rupture and we would have a disaster.”

Allen also claims that Boulet’s boat is too small for what Boulet routinely uses it for – ferrying more than six passengers to their balloon ride.

“The Coast Guard has fined him on three separate occasions (for overloading his boat),” Allen said. “I’m not trying to shut him down. I just want him to run his business according to regulations.”

Balderdash, says Boulet.

“This knucklehead has been trying to poke a hole in my business ever since he’s been here,” Boulet said. “He’s hired attorneys and phoned government agencies all over the place, and he’s gotten nowhere. I’ve been doing flights here for six years, and the only one who has a problem with me is Bob Allen.”

Who can settle this argument? The FAA has given it a try. An investigator from the FAA’s Reno Flights Standards District Office was dispatched recently to investigate Allen’s complaint, and this is what he determined: No foul.

“We found no violation,” said Don Newport, the FAA General Aviation Unit supervisor who oversees balloon operations. “We go by Federal Aviation Regulations, and it was determined that Balloons Over Lake Tahoe operates within those regulations.”

Newport declined to elaborate, but Mitch Barker of of the FAA’s Office of Public Affairs in Seattle had a bit more to say.

“Balloons are required to operate under the same guidelines as all other aircraft (except helicopters),” Barker said. “But to tell you the truth, this is new territory for me. I’ve never encountered a situation like this before, where the question was balloon safety.”

According to FAA regulations, no aircraft may travel at an altitude below 1,000 feet “over congested areas.” But the mandated ceiling is only 500 feet “over other than congested areas.”

What’s a congested area? The corridor between Lake Tahoe Airport and the lake is primarily fields and meadow, but it does intersect U.S. Highway 50. The FAA, however, most likely is cutting Boulet some slack due to the fact that balloons need a large area to reach a cruising altitude – although the Reno office did not specifically indicate that was the case.

“What if some couple is driving home from the casino, and the balloon hits them?” asks Andy Anderson, a retired Coast Guard inspector who is part-owner of Allen’s business. “This guy (Boulet) is just ignoring all the regulations, and we don’t think that’s right.”

But Boulet thinks Allen is simply trying to run him out of town.

“He’s trying to take laws that don’t quite fit and use them against me,” Boulet said. “He thinks that by throwing stones at me he can create a monopoly here. He did the same thing in the Carson Valley, where there were three balloon companies at one time, and then there was only one – his.”

The FAA has agreed in writing with Boulet, at least concerning the part about laws that don’t fit. The Coast Guard, however, has cited Boulet on three occasions for overloading his boat. But Boulet said that he has been complying with the regulations for some time.

“The problem we all face is that this is a new thing we’re trying here,” Boulet said. “No one was flying balloons (in this type of setting) anywhere in the world before we got here. It took me years to secure all the permits from all the different agencies, and they all said we were safe. And we are safe. I’ve been in the business for 17 years without an accident of any kind. This guy is just being vindictive.”

But Allen is anything but contrite.

“It’s baffling to me why the FAA ruled the way they did,” Allen said. “We are licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard and comply with all regulations, and we paid a lot of money to do so. We only think it’s fair that (Boulet) do the same.”

But Boulet wants no part of this feud.

“Balloonists have traditionally been a community of buddies,” he said. “In other areas I’ve been, we’ve gone to great lengths to help each other. But this guy has some sort of a grand marketing scheme he’s trying to promote, and I’m in the way. He’s playing games. But I just wish we could get along.”

Tahoe Daily Tribune E-mail: tribune@tahoe.com

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