Ballooning companies can go aloft again, but with restrictions
PHOENIX (AP) – This should be the busiest time of year for Randy and Margie Long, the owners of the Hot Air Expeditions ballooning company, but their fleet of nine balloons sat packed away in a warehouse for the past nine days instead of taking clients drifting over the desert.
Their problem was the same one U.S. airlines faced immediately after last week’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Federal Aviation Administration wouldn’t let them fly until Thursday.
”It’s an extremely big hit,” Randy Long said. ”We’re cutting costs wherever we can and we’re dipping into personal savings to pay the bills.”
Following the attacks, the FAA stopped all commercial and private flights. The skies were reopened for most commercial flights within a few days, but the FAA did not allowed any general aviation flights by pilots who use visual flight rules, including balloonists, glider pilots and most owners of private airplanes until Thursday.
That even put next month’s Albuquerque (N.M.) International Balloon Fiesta, the country’s largest balloon gathering, in limbo.
Now, limited general aviation flights are being allowed outside of controlled airspace. But many restrictions remain in place, including a ban on flight school operations.
FAA officials say the general aviation restrictions have been kept in place longer than those on commercial flights because most small aircraft don’t have transponders, which give traffic controllers information to identify who is flying what and where. Without that information, all controllers see is a dot on a radar screen.
And now, such a dot looks like a threat.
”A small plane loaded with explosives could do a lot of damage,” FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said. ”Let’s face it, this is not something we would have envisioned over a week ago.”
But pilots say balloons would make poor weapons, since they simply go where the wind blows them.
”We don’t even have a steering wheel,” said Scott Appelman of Rainbow Riders in Albuquerque.
When the airlines shut down, they lost billions of dollars. Members of Congress are now debating whether to provide financial assistance.
For balloon tour operators, flight schools and other small aviation-based businesses, the hit is smaller in terms of dollars, but no less significant when it comes to the future of their businesses.
No flights. No business. No money.
To cut its losses, Hot Air Expeditions laid off its 50 employees and turned off the lights at its north Phoenix headquarters, which costs $40,000 just to open the doors, Long said.
Thursday, the company was back in business, booking flights and planning where to fly so they would not violate the FAA’s airspace restrictions.
”We lost a lot of money,” Long said. ”But people are really excited that we’re able to fly again. They’re ready to go, at least the ones who are still here.”
Bill Heck, a commercial balloon pilot and president of the Arizona Balloon Club, was supposed to be flying in Seattle this week. He lost several thousand dollars during the shutdown and said he expects the FAA to impose new restrictions when it allows general aviation to resume full flight operations. ”We’re going to be affected by this for a long time.”
On the Net:
Hot Air Expeditions: http://www.hotairexpeditions.com
Desert Sky Adventure Tours: http://www.desertskyadventuretours.com
Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association: http://www.aopa.org
Federal Aviation Administration: http://www.faa.gov
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