By Mike Gerred
I have been flying passengers for thirty years and I am amazed at the number of people willing to put their lives in the hands of someone they know little, if not nothing, about! You would not believe how often the very first time I am questioned about my experience, by a passenger, occurs after the balloon is already off the ground and hundreds of feet in the air! I have seen this so many times that I have begun to provide humorous answers, in the hope that it will alleviate some of the nervous energy that prompted them to ask the question in the first place. My favorites to "how long have you been doing this?" are "this is my first flight, I'm gonna read that chapter on landing tonight!" Or "this is my third flight and on the advice of my attorney, I can't talk about the first two." A little gallows humor for sure, but it does seem to lighten the mood and reduce the first few moments of anxiety that every first time passenger feels. The fact of the matter is once you're aloft, you have no place to go but along for the ride. You are probably better off to not to ask any questions; you may not like what you hear and the answer won't affect the outcome. That is unless you have chosen a rookie pilot and you distract him or her from flying the balloon with your questions - now that could affect the outcome! I hope you will find this article informative and use the knowledge to find a safe and confident pilot flying for a reputable company to provide your adventure.
This is the third and final article in a series to educate the consumer on how to choose an experienced hot air balloon ride company. This part will provide you with the questions to ask before you purchase a ride and before you climb aboard for a flight. More importantly, it will provide you with the tools necessary to interpret the answers that you receive; permitting you to make an informed purchase.
In the first article, How to Choose an Experienced Hot Air Balloon Ride Company and Not Just a Broker, I explained the difference between a hot air balloon "operator" and a hot air balloon ride "broker." To quickly recap, a balloon ride operator owns and operates the balloon that you will actually fly in. They are in business to both sell and provide the ride. A balloon ride broker does not own any balloons and is in business to sell you only a gift certificate or flight voucher. In Part 2, Operator or Broker, the reader was given information on how to quickly tell the difference between an operator and a broker in a web search. If the differences are unclear to you or if you are uncertain why you should deal directly with an operator vs. a broker, I suggest you spend a few minutes reading about it here, in ezine or you may find the articles in their entirety on my website by clicking the link located in the biography at the end of this article.
After Choosing a Company to Call or Book with, Here are the Questions to Ask:
1. How long have you been in business?
How long a company has been in business is usually a good indicator of how well the business is run. Companies that have been in business a long time must be paying attention to detail and providing good customer service. The market will generally weed out companies that treat their customers with indifference, provide a shoddy product, or are in it for the fast buck. Excellent companies persevere, are in it for the long haul, and realize that trust and making a name for themselves is something that takes time and effort.
2. What is your physical address in my area and what kind of legal entity is the company?
If the company does not have a physical address or location in your area or even in your state where you may meet with them or to obtain a certificate and the only option is by mail, it is a broker. Locally owned and operated means that the company should have a vested interest in how you are treated as a customer. A satisfied customer will tell 5 - 10 people about their experience, a dissatisfied customer will tell hundreds. Out of town ride companies base their sales on volume nationally and are not that worried about the level of service that you may receive. There are many legal forms that a business may elect but a corporation is, by far, the best indicator of a legitimate business entity. How many locations do you have? If there is more than one or the answer is "you may redeem certificates at multiple locations" you are dealing with a broker. This is not to be confused with the number of launch sites that a company may have. Many ride operators take off from multiple locations but have only one office.
3. How many hours do you or do your pilots have and what are their names?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licenses and regulates all balloon pilots and requires them to log their flight hours. The FAA minimum for a Commercial Balloon Pilot is only 35 hours of pilot-in command flight time. A full time pilot will obviously have more experience and more hours compared to a part time pilot. The Balloon Federation of America (BFA) has established a Pilot Achievement Awards program that has levels 1 through 8 or Student Aeronaut (balloon pilot) to Distinguished Aeronaut. The BFA requires a minimum of 700 flight hours in 600 flights, among other requirements, to qualify as a Distinguished Aeronaut. A level of 400 to 500 hours is a mid-level pilot and 1000 hours or more is an experienced pilot. Recent experience and flying more than 75 hours per year will ensure competency. Flying 30 hours a year, or less, is insufficient in my opinion to be at the top of your game. You may search the FAA airman registry to confirm a pilot's certification by going here https://amsrvs.registry.faa.gov/airmeninquiry and first entering your own information. Use the pilot's name and state to narrow your search. Unfortunately, this will only confirm that they have a license, not for how long, nor whether the pilot is current on the mandated requirements to act as a pilot-in-command. If a company has only one pilot, it is small and possibly a hobby operation. Having multiple pilots is indicative of a full time ride business. Lastly, ask how long has the pilot had their license, not how long have you been in ballooning? Many pilots start off as a balloon ground crew member and may have been in the sport for years but have only a pilot for a very short time. If the answer is five to seven years or less as a pilot, you are generally dealing with a low time, limited experience pilot.
4. Have you as a pilot, your other pilots, or your company ever had an accident?
Ask if any pilot has ever been refused insurance, or been required to file a report with the FAA or NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board). Most pilots have never had a run in with the FAA. To be sanctioned by the FAA usually requires a fairly egregious violation. If there are any reports of FAA violations, mishaps (FAA for accidents) or incidents (FAA for minor accidents) then beware. Does the pilot participate in recurrent training, ie. did they attend a safety seminar in the past 12 months? Most insurance companies offer substantial discounts for pilots that participate in a safety seminar. If a company suddenly changes its name while operating the same aircraft or occupying the same location, this could be a attempt to distance themselves from being associated with the bad press and other repercussions from an accident or significant problem.
5. How is your crew trained and are they experienced?
Quite a few companies will advertise the "total ballooning experience" and immerse you by putting you to work helping to inflate, deflate, and pack the balloon. There is even one company that I know of that advertises for you to come out and experience crewing first hand by paying the company for the privilege of doing their hard work! A legitimate company will have all the crew necessary to operate the system that they are flying. It is perfectly OK to allow passengers to take as active a role as they wish (so long as proper instruction is provided) but not OK for paying passengers to be expected to work. A full time company will have properly trained and paid crew.
6. Do you fly full time or part time?
This may seem at first a trivial question, but it is significant. Piloting a balloon is a skill that requires proficiency. Like any trade that requires skill, practice creates competence. Full time means professional pilots making a living with their pilot's license and as such they usually have more experience, hours, and practice. Part timers are generally doing something else for a living, not flying nearly as much, and possibly just supporting what would otherwise be an expensive hobby. This is not to say that there are not good and even great part time balloon pilots, there are. Simply stated, the more you do something and the more often you do it, the better you become at doing it!
7. Do you own your balloon or balloons?
If the answer is "no" or "all the companies we use, own their balloon," it's a broker. If it is just one balloon, it is a one pilot small operator. Having multiple owned balloons typically means a full time balloon ride business operator with more than one pilot.
8. What size balloon/s do you fly?
The larger the balloon, the more lift it generates which translates into the more weight it can carry. The more weight it can carry means more passengers. The bigger the balloon the more it costs. Think of cars as a good analogy. Balloons are measured by the amount of cubic feet of air they will hold. Small or compact balloons are 56,000-77,000 cubic feet. The midsize balloon is in the 90-105,000 cubic foot range. SUV size balloons are 126-141,000 cubic feet and van or truck sized balloons are 180-300,000 cubic feet. Full time companies generally use balloons larger than 105,000 cubic feet for their passenger capacity. If the company limits passenger weights or can carry just one, two, or three passengers, they are operating a small balloon with limited capacity. Many companies will advertise this limited capacity as a positive, "just you and the pilot, a private charter." Just keep in mind what that is really telling you; it is a small operation, one small balloon, and most likely a sport enthusiast with a hobby business. This can also mean a limited amount of experience. Most companies will offer private charters albeit at additional cost. In addition to size and the ability to carry weight, how hot the weather is also determines a balloons lift capacity. The hotter it is outside, the less weight a balloon can carry. So, if a company talks about the number of passengers they can carry in cooler weather vs. hot weather, it is a smaller balloon with lift limitations. This is an important safety factor; balloons have a maximum continuous operating temperature. The smaller the balloon the more heat it takes to lift the weight and the safe operating temperature can be exceeded!
9. What are your refund, cancellation, and transfer policies?
If the answers are vague or evasive you should beware. This goes for any question that you may ask a company. If you don't get straight answers when they are trying their best to get you as a customer, what kind of treatment will you get if you no longer wish to be their customer or if there is a dispute? Straight forward answers and the policy in writing is the way bona fide businesses conduct themselves. Anything else is simply unacceptable. Flight should be clearly refundable and easily transferred. Most companies have a minimum 72 hour cancellation policy.
You are now equipped to ask intelligent questions and more importantly to understand the significance of the answers that you receive. Get out there and experience the romance and adventure that only a hot air balloon ride can provide. I appreciate any comments that you may have about this information, especially how it may be improved. I also welcome any questions that you may have after reading this information and will be happy to address them.