The finding by Egyptian investigators that a hot air balloon accident that killed 19 tourists, nine of them from Hong Kong, was caused by pilot error is of cold comfort to the relatives and friends of those who died. Nor is it surprising - the craft had been involved in a mishap two years ago and the country's ballooning industry has a poor record. The way is now clear for compensation claims, but that should not be where the matter ends. From the tragedy has to come a worldwide transformation of the activity to make it safer.
Last February's accident was the worst on record for the ballooning industry. It came little more than a year after 11 people were killed in New Zealand; just last month, three Brazilians died when two of the craft collided in Turkey. But such incidents do not deter tourists from taking to the skies, to want to hover as if in near-weightlessness and to thrill at the often bumpy landings. The tens of thousands of balloons flying around the world prove that there is a sizeable demand.
A police report concluded that the accident over the southern Egyptian tourist city of Luxor was the result of a gas leak that caused a mid-air fire. The pilot, who was arrested, and the manager of the balloon company, Sky Cruises, were found at fault. Egyptian operations have long been criticised for poor pilot training, low safety standards and a lack of oversight; the sport in the country was suspended in 2009 after a previous accident in Luxor that injured 16 people. Promised improvements did not fix the shortcomings, as the tragedy that killed our citizens proves.
Reliable statistics on ballooning are difficult to come by, although US figures show the sport to be twice as dangerous as flying in a plane. Pilot error is the main cause of accidents. Presumably, in less tightly regulated countries like Egypt and Turkey, accident rates are higher. Given the demand, it is time that there was an international organisation setting rules and standards. Until then, it would be wise for tourists to think twice when considering a balloon ride.