By Haroon Siddique
UK operators and pilots were the pioneers of the Egyptian hot air ballooning industry about 20 years ago but then were “forced out” about 10 years later as the Egyptians decided to do it themselves, according to one British industry figure who did not want to be named.
While the desire to create local jobs and for local companies to profit was understandable, he said, he suggested the consequence could have been that highly experienced British pilots were replaced by locals without the same degree of training and hours in the air. He said there was “anecdotal evidence that standards in Egypt are not anything like they are here”.
Tuesday’s was not the first ballooning accident in Egypt. In 2009 30 people were hurt in five hot air balloon incidents, including three on one day in February. There were also non-fatal accidents in Luxor in 2007 and 2008. But John Rudoni, director of Wickers World, which flies more than 6,000 passengers a year in the UK, says ballooning is fundamentally a safe activity. He said the UK industry was “very, very tightly controlled” with pilots and operators of balloons licensed by the Civil Aviation Authority and subject to annual checks.
He said that since the licensing regime was introduced in 1988, there had been one death in the UK. “When you compare road journeys or train journeys or airplanes, just about any other form of transport, we have an extremely favourable outcome,” he said.
Rudoni, who is also a founder member of the British Association of Balloon Operators, said he did not wish to speculate on what might have caused Tuesday’s crash in Luxor but that human error was the usual cause. “With most accidents it’s down to pilots making a mistake or someone in maintenance making a mistake,” he said.
Alaa Mahmoud, sales manager for Magic Horizon, a Luxor-based balloon company not involved in Tuesday’s crash, said Egyptian authorities did regulate operators and pilots and carry out checks but that some companies employed relatively inexperienced pilots. However, to get a commercial licence pilots must have 35 hours’ experience, the same as in the UK. He said foreign tour operators carried out checks on balloon operators “but only the companies they work with”.
Aside from different licensing regimes, there are other differences with the UK. In the UK, where most balloons are manufactured, balloons are fired with propane gas. But expense and lack of availability in Egypt mean butane is usually used instead. Butane must be pressurised, which requires other gases to be used, which leaves more scope for mistakes, the UK industry figure said.
Rudoni said that to carry more than 19 passengers in the UK the regulations required two pilots, which means that UK operators rarely do so because of the extra expense. Initial reports from Luxor suggested there may have been 20 passengers and one pilot.
Maggie Sabourne, 55, from Camberley, Surrey, who was rescued by the Egyptian air force nine hours after the hot air balloon she was in crashed in the desert in 2009, said the health and safety standards were “not what you would expect”. She said her pilot took off too late in the day when the wind direction had changed, which led to the balloon ending up in the desert, with the bottom of it dragging against rocks. She said the balloon had no first aid kit, very little drinking water and that after it crashed the pilot walked off without the passengers when they refused to follow him across a dangerous rocky path. “This morning, hearing about these people, it was so nearly us,” she said. “I just thought their safety altogether was negligible.”