Egypt balloon tragedy

Beijing urged to tighten controls over hot-air balloons after tragedy in Egypt

Club calls for government to seize opportunity and stop illegal flights, manufacturing in China

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 March, 2013, 4:55am

In the wake of the tragedy in Egypt, the mainland's biggest hot-air balloon club is urging the government to take steps to stop illegal flights and balloon manufacturing in China.

Cheng Peng , general manager of the club based in Tianjin , told the South China Morning Post that there were nearly 100 active hot-air balloon clubs on the mainland, but only four or five were licensed to train pilots and organise flights.

Additionally, he said, materials were often illegally made and did not meet safety standards. Fuel tanks, for instance, may leak or even explode after a few years due to manufacturing flaws or cheap materials.

"We are deeply concerned by the recklessness of some unlicensed clubs and illegal manufacturers," Cheng said. "We sincerely hope that the government treats the Egyptian accident as seriously as a domestic accident and takes decisive measures to bring order … to the industry."

In October 2009, a balloon caught fire and crashed in Yangshuo , Guangxi , killing four Dutch tourists and injuring three. A gas leak was blamed.

Afterwards, government agencies - including the Civil Aviation Administration, local public security bureau, transport administration and tourism bureau - passed the blame back and forth, as there were no laws or regulations to say who should be held accountable, Cheng said.

Hot-air balloon mishaps had occurred before that, but none were as fatal or drew as much international attention as the Yangshuo disaster. It eventually prompted the central government to introduce a series of regulations regarding the management and safety of the industry, and all balloon clubs were ordered to obtain a licence.

However, Cheng said only a few clubs had made the necessary improvements and upgrades, and small operators were still largely unregulated.

China's market for hot-air balloons is still relatively small compared with countries such as the United States, mainly because of the Chinese military's strict control over air traffic, but the industry has been experiencing rapid growth over the past couple of years as those controls have been gradually relaxed.

Cheng's club, a semi-official joint venture between China Aviation Group and the Beijing Foreign Enterprise Human Resource Service, has about 200 members, but not all of them have their pilot's licence.

Some members sell flight packages at tourist attractions, and others may organise or participate in several scenic flights a year, such as over the deserts of Xinjiang in the west.

A member of Cheng's club in Beijing agreed that the industry needed tougher regulations, but he said the new licensing system had been in effect for only a couple of years, and many small clubs were still struggling to meet requirements.

"Ballooning is a young sport in China. It needs more time to get fully organised," he said, declining to be named.

There are no official government figures on the industry's performance or popularity, but Cheng said 34 people applied for a pilot's licence last year, twice as many as in 2011. And his club is expected to organise more than 10 flights this year for its members - more than ever before.

Ballooning is not a cheap hobby; Cheng estimated it costs about 40,000 yuan (HK$49,400) to get the training needed to obtain an operating licence, and about 70,000 yuan to buy a balloon. He said the nation's most active balloon bases are in Beijing, Sichuan and Jiangsu , where people have more money and terrains are ideally flat for landings and take-offs.

If history is any indication, though, the tragedy in Egypt could set back the ballooning industry in China by slowing business and the pace of its development, Cheng said.

"After the accident in Yangshuo, many flights were cancelled and some members left due to safety concerns. We had expected huge growth in the industry this year, but now with the accident making newspaper headlines, we are not so sure."