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Safety of Hot-Air Balloon Flights Worries Residents

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By Jesús Aguado

One of the consequences of San Miguel de Allende’s popularity as a tourist destination has been the proliferation of hot-air balloons taking tourists on low flights over the city, a situation that many residents see as a serious accident waiting to happen.

It is certainly possible on occasion to see as many as six of these balloons flying over the city at one time, often in violation of the Reglamento de Tránsito Aéreo de la Federación (Federal Air Traffic Regulations), which require that aircraft not fly lower than 300 meters in any urban or residential area, or in an area with buildings, and which require that aircraft be flown in a manner that does not endanger life and property.

Some of San Miguel’s hot-air balloon companies even advertise flagrant violations of these rules on their customer websites, such as one company, Yumping, whose website promises customers, “We intend to fly as near to the city as possible, sometimes only a few meters from the ground, at other times over the clouds, depending on air currents.”

Consequences for this sort of illegal behavior by companies are currently nonexistent, as appropriate authorities are not enforcing the federal rules, despite complaints by San Miguel residents in the urban area that the balloons are flying too low, invading their privacy, and presenting the potential for dangerous accidents.

There have been at least two accidents in the city involving air balloons.

Sanmiguelenses who spoke with us say they have repeatedly witnessed these companies flying dangerously low. Many said that they can see the balloons’ passenger baskets passing very close to their terrazas and windows—and to rooftop-installed stationary gas tanks, water tanks, and antennas.

Many residents interviewed for this article asked to remain anonymous, and so they are quoted throughout not using their last names.

“The air balloon industry needs regulation. In the past, some have flown some six or eight meters above the cupolas,” says Alexis, an Atascadero neighborhood resident. “We can recognize the faces of the passengers, their clothing. They scream ‘hola’ and wave their hands,” he said.

Citywide safety concerns

Residents who spoke to Atención for this article tended to express similar concerns about balloon safety, although a few also mentioned that the balloons’ gas inflation noises regularly frighten their pets. In general, the low altitude of the balloons concerned people the most.

Sanmiguelense Janet J. has been on both sides of the balloon issue: she has taken three flights in air balloons, two of them in San Miguel. But she is also a resident, and has been awakened many mornings around 7am by the balloons’ gas inflations as they pass by her window so closely that she can see passengers’ faces.

While she acknowledges that the flights can be exciting, she also knows from personal experience that they pose serious risk for passengers and bystanders.

“My first flight was 10 years ago, here in San Miguel with my mother,” she said. “It seemed that there was a lack of information between the pilot and the flight apprentice, and we collided with a wall. My mother suffered considerable injuries.”

Six months ago, she was invited onto another hot-air balloon flight.

“Reluctantly, I agreed,” she said. “Our pilot was from the state of Hidalgo. He mentioned that the demand for flights has increased [in San Miguel] and that more and more [balloon] pilots are coming to the city.”

Janet remembers the pilot pointing to other balloons flying that morning in Centro and commenting, “‛They are flying very low and close to houses; that is dangerous, and we will not do it because it’s very risky.’”

Jackie B., a Sanmiguelense in Linda Vista, told Atención that she is extremely concerned about low-flying balloons endangering the many rooftops in town that have gas tanks installed. She also worried that they will tangle with the abundance of power lines on poles in San Miguel. In her area, the balloons fly near a school “without much construction,” she says, “and probably because of this they felt alright [doing so].”

Alexis says that the balloons have flown as low as only six to eight meters above homes’ cupolas.

“One day there could be an accident, and not necessarily in the Historic Center,” she said. “As much as one may love their majesty and beauty, they need to be regulated everywhere. I don’t want to think of the consequences of a balloon hitting a house, especially a roof where there are gas tanks—which is the majority of the properties.”

Why balloons are regulated

Air balloons are legally considered aircraft by México’s governmental air traffic control agency. In the case of an emergency requiring immediate action, a pilot can deviate from the air traffic rules to do whatever is required to ensure a safe flight, however, he must send detailed information to the closest authorities immediately afterward, explaining the reasons for deviation from the rules.

The Tourism Council’s take

Laura Torres, president of the Consejo Turístico en San Miguel (The San Miguel Tourism Council), told Atención without getting into particulars that at first, San Miguel had only one balloon, and “now there are more.”

But Torres said that the flights have always been an important part of San Miguel’s tourism offerings.

“It’s a very nice experience for the tourist who has flown,” she said.

We asked her what she would say to San Miguel residents who think that the balloons are flying too low.

“All the pilots that operate them are professionals and respect the regulations. There have been no incidents until now. They are in good order, and there should be no problems. What happens is that the balloons are directed based on existing wind currents. It’s very seldom that they pass over San Miguel.

“As for those who have the fortune of passing above or nearby, it is because of the winds; but there should be no problems. Sometimes they fly low, but they maintain the pertinent altitudes.” (Torres did not clarify her understanding of “pertinent”). “It’s beautiful seeing them fly, even more beautiful to be in one,” she said.

There are only two companies offering flights who are registered with the council, Torres said. Each pays 4,000 pesos per year to be a member.

Balloon ride providers weigh in

Hot-air balloon company Vuela en Globo regularly offers flights in San Miguel. The company’s balloon captain, who did not want his name published, guaranteed that the company’s balloons are no longer passing over urban areas. They realized that there are plenty of other attractions outside the city, like the Presa Allende, the Laja River, the archeological zone, and the mountains, he said, explaining that Vuela en Globo’s flights are now taking off from the parking lot at Pollo Feliz, and no longer from Campos Origel in the Mexiquito neighborhood or near the city’s baseball field. He offered to take our reporter on a flight to explain the mechanics, but then, claiming a scheduling error, changed the date of the flight to one impossible for him.

We also talked to a representative from Coyote Canyon, a San Miguel company that offers adventure tourism activities, including hot air balloon rides—which it offers through a partnership with Vuela en Globo. He also did not want to give his name. He assured us that flying over Centro is possible. For example, if the balloon launch is from Campos Origel, he said—and there is a southerly wind—then one can cross safely over the city.

“It all depends on the wind.”

Atención also talked to representatives from Discovery, another San Miguel hot-air balloon company. Representatives also told us that passing over the Centro or the urban area “will depend on the wind.”

Yumping, a San Miguel outdoor activities company, sells hot-air balloon rides on their website without mention of which balloon company they use. Their site promises that their flights are always between 500 and 1,000 meters in altitude. However, residents have complained that this is not the case and that the company has no defined route.

The company’s landing area is also different each time, say residents in and around the Malanquin neighborhood, who see the balloons above their homes regularly. They say the balloons are an invasion of their privacy.

Balloons must obtain a license

Secretary of the Government and the City Council Gonzalo González indicated that the balloons must have a license and must be registered with the Dirección Aeronáutica Civil (Civil Aeronautics Office) in order to fly, and that the pilots must be licensed.

“What our job is, via the Civil Protection Department, is to check on the conditions of each craft,” he said.

González said he knows that some balloons have flown near homes.

“That could represent some danger. That is why Civil Protection has sent a document to the Civil Aeronautics Office to see that the companies do their flights in the correct manner. We check that the conditions of takeoff and landing are adequate. Even though they are directed by the wind, they are not uncontrollable.”

González said that there is no land use zoning for such activities—not even in private spaces—since it is not a contingency established by San Miguel’s zoning codes.

“But we will verify together with the federal government that requirements are being followed and that where they land has permission by the people living there, because we have seen an increase in flights. They should be regulated already.”

BOX

Where to direct complaints about hot-air balloon flights

Celaya’s airport commander Martin Olalde told Atención that complaints about the balloons can be presented at his offices in Celaya, located at Carretera Libre Celaya a Salamanca Km 6.5.

 

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