FAA agrees to one-year reprieve from rule for Albuquerque balloonists

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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – The City of Albuquerque announced Wednesday the FAA has developed a letter of agreement allowing hot air balloonists to be exempt from a rule requiring balloons to have costly transponder equipment.

Balloonists have the option to sign onto the letter, set to be in effect until March 2023. The letter details certain safety requirements for navigating the Albuquerque airspace and reiterates many practices already in-place for balloonists.

Just one month ago, there was an uproar from city, state, and congressional leaders about a potential threat to New Mexico’s balloon industry. The newly-enforced FAA airspace regulations severely limited where balloons could fly in the metro.

But this new letter of agreement is offering a compromise to keep balloons in the skies, at least for now.

Local pilots say this is really clearing the way for a picture perfect balloon fiesta.

“I’m going to tell you, my faith in the system was somewhat restored with the fact that way this worked,” said Scott Appelman with Rainbow Ryders. "This is a great start on the solution. We’re very pleased with this. We’re pleased that everybody’s listening.”

The battle is not over yet though, the new agreement will only last for one year while the FAA works on a more permanent solution, but this time balloon pilots will have a seat at the table.

"We’ll work on a long term solution. But now we feel like we’re part of that solution. And that’s a great way to be making new rules," said Appelman.

The new agreement is not a done deal yet, this is only a draft of what the FAA is proposing. It still has to clear a few legal hurdles and operators will have to sign off on it, but Appelman says that could happen by the end of the week.

He says it shouldn’t be long until people will start seeing balloons dotting the Albuquerque skies once again.

On Wednesday morning, Appelman and his team with Rainbow Ryders were already reviewing the new agreement and mapping out which parts of the city are still off-limits. He said they’ve already sold out some mornings too.

The FAA is preparing a permanent solution by next March based on a risk analysis study and continued collaboration with stakeholders currently underway.

The FAA sent KOB 4 the following statement:

"We recognize the important role that hot air ballooning plays in New Mexico’s culture. The FAA has reached an agreement that enables balloon pilots to continue flying safely in the region while we work on a long-term solution." –FAA Regional Administrator Rob Lowe

The move comes after Mayor Keller sent a letter to the FAA, Feb. 14, urging they grant an exemption, for Albuquerque balloonists, from new rules requiring ADS-B devices onboard. The mayor was supported by the governor, New Mexico’s federal delegation and the ballooning community in seeking a resolution.

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta shared the following statement:

“We are pleased to see the announcement about the one-year waiver to the Federal Aviation Administration’s ADS-B requirements for hot air balloons flying in the Albuquerque area. We appreciate the efforts of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, Senator Martin Heinrich, Senator Ben Ray Lujan, Representative Melanie Stansbury, Representative Yvette Herrell, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, the FAA and the countless other supporters on behalf of the hot air balloon industry. New Mexico’s balloonists are tremendously resilient, and many voices helped to provide a workable solution. With this one-year waiver, we can continue to work with our Government Officials and the FAA to devise a long-term solution to this issue.”

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a statement in response to the exemption:

“The economic and cultural importance of New Mexico’s rightful reputation as the Ballooning Capital of the World cannot be overstated. I appreciate the FAA’s work to identify a solution, recognizing that Albuquerque’s ballooning community has operated with a dedication to safety for over fifty years. New Mexico’s representatives from local, state, and federal government worked together to advocate for a solution – and the real winners are the thousands of visitors to New Mexico and the Balloon Fiesta every year.”

Statement from U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich:

“The unique Albuquerque wind patterns have made hot air ballooning iconic and essential to the industry and our tourism economy. This fight was critical to reopen the airspace over Albuquerque. I was proud to work with our delegation to win that fight."

Statement from U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján:

“Hot air balloons are an important part of New Mexico’s culture and economy, as seen in the annual Balloon Fiesta. I’m pleased that this industry will continue bringing people together in New Mexico. It is vital that the FAA provides clarity to hot air balloon professionals and enthusiasts, as their community makes significant contributions to our state’s economy.”

Statement from U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury:

“This is huge for New Mexico. Albuquerque is the ballooning capital of the world. Balloon Fiesta and year-round ballooning are a vital part of Albuquerque’s cultural fabric and economy. Upon hearing that a new FAA rule could threaten this iconic industry, we have been working to resolve this issue. I am grateful to the FAA for working to find a meaningful solution and to the ballooning community who brought it to our attention — and who every day keeps the magic of ballooning in New Mexico alive!”