On Tuesday 19 people died when a hot air balloon crashed in Egypt, near Luxor. There was a fire, followed by an explosion. Then the balloon plunged from the sky and crashed in the sugar cane fields. Only the pilot survived.
Hot balloon rides are a popular tourist attraction in the UAE too. Between September and May, thousands of hot air balloons take off from different locations, taking people around the highest roofs and sand dunes, offering some of the country’s most breathtaking views.
The fatal crash in Egypt reminds of our vulnerability in the air. At the very least, it raises the question if we can feel safe when stepping into the hot air balloon basket, and putting our lives in the hands of its pilot.
In April 2010, an accident involving a hot air balloon took place in Al Ain, and two passengers died. Unfavourable weather conditions had led the pilot to make an emergency landing, which failed to put the balloon and its passengers safely onto the ground.
The General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) concluded it its investigations that the pilot was not experienced enough for high wind speed balloon operations. In addition, the weather conditions should not have allowed for the balloon to launch.
The GCAA made a number of recommendations, but it is unclear whether these have been followed up. No comments could be retrieved from the authority at this point.
“Safety regulations are very tough, and the follow up of these regulations are too,” says Tariq Al Omari, owner of Amigo’s Balloons, which claims to be the original founder of hot air ballooning in Dubai. But according to him, safety is dependent on three factors: the ballooning company, the safety regulations and the equipment.
“Apart from regulations, each company is responsible for its own manual, and for the follow-up of this manual. It is important that somebody is able to take the right decision whether to take off, or not.
“In the case of the crash in Egypt I believe there was human error at play. It looks like a rope was in the way of a gas cylinder, which eventually led to a gas leak and explosion. But people are responsible for the right use of equipment,” comments Tariq, who used to work for the Egyptian company that launched the balloon of the fatal crash.
Balloon Adventures Emirates, the ballooning company that was involved in the Al Ain accident in 2010 has regained its business and increased safety measures. Amber McIntyre, Marketing Manager of the company comments on the accident:
“We had a very fast landing due to a sudden, not-forecasted change in wind three years ago. Two passengers exited the basket after touch down in spite of being thoroughly briefed not to do so. The other 11 passengers and the pilot who stayed in the basket were uninjured.
“As a result of this, we installed safety belts in all of our balloons to prevent the passengers from exiting the basket prematurely after landing. To our knowledge, we are the only balloon company in the world that has a safety harness system in all of their balloons.”
However, asked whether safety can be guaranteed in a hot air balloon ride, both Tariq and Amber answer with ‘no’. “Safety is never guaranteed, not in a car, boat, plane, balloon or a quad bike. Accidents can happen to anyone at any time, all we can do is try our best to prevent them from happening.
“As a Balloon Company who are highly motivated in the safety of their passengers, we brief them on the safety instructions before they board the balloon and try to impress upon them the importance of listening to the Captains' instructions at all times. We make sure that all our equipment is well maintained and purchased from reliable and certified sources. Our pilots value their safety too.”
Until now the balloon crash in Egypt has not shied away customers from the balloon business in the UAE, as no bookings are known to have been canceled. “I had a customer ask me this morning: ‘Have any wimps cancelled on you yet?’ He then re-confirmed his group for their flight,” says Amber.
“If a commercial liner goes down and hundreds of people are killed then the reaction is the same; you feel slightly more nervous about getting on the plane. In this case it is only natural that people may feel more reserved about flying.”