ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Organizers of Albuquerque’s international balloon fiesta are seeking a waiver from federal aviation officials, saying a requirement that aircraft have specific tracking technology could affect the annual event.
The Federal Aviation Administration rule affects most of the airspace above New Mexico’s largest city. The agency granted a waiver for last year’s fiesta, and event officials tell the Albuquerque Journal they are seeking a similar exemption for this year’s 50th anniversary celebration.
Balloonists say the rule remains a problem as it prevents passengers from getting expansive views from higher flights and bars pilots from more scenic locations such as the Rio Grande.
“This will be terminal to the industry, the sport and (the) culture that Albuquerque has been made world-famous for,” said Scott Appelman, founder and president of the 39-year-old Rainbow Ryders ballooning company.
Appelman said balloons don’t have the tracking technology, nor have federal regulators provided standards for how to incorporate it.
Murray Conrad, the owner of World Balloon, said he is still able to use his launch site on the city’s west side as long as crews determine the winds will not blow them eastward into the more regulated airspace and as long as their balloons go no higher than about 2,000 feet off the ground.
“People have always seen balloons flying over Albuquerque and over downtown, and those days are done with this new regulation,” Conrad said.
Appelman’s company 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. He said Rainbow Ryders typically provides about 25,000 rides per year in Albuquerque, with the majority of passengers being tourists.
Appelman has emailed New Mexico’s two U.S. senators and sought help from local and state officials, but so far there are no solutions.
“If we don’t get this corrected, I could see us having to look at, quite frankly, laying people off,” he said.
Appelman 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.
The federal rule requiring “automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast” equipment inside certain airspaces took effect in 2020. Appelman said it was not enforced actively until September 2021.
The surveillance technology is different from the transponders that balloonists can install temporarily so they can be seen on radar by Air Traffic Control. Under the rule, it must be permanently integrated into an aircraft’s onboard electrical system.
Balloonists note that their aircraft don’t have permanent electrical systems.
Fiesta officials have been told they would get a waiver for the 2022 event, but operations manager Sam Parks said the rule still makes flying harder for both Albuquerque-based ballooning companies and the recreational pilots who operate year-round.