March 28, 2008 / 12:13 AM / 10 years ago

Canada urged to tighten hot-air balloon safety

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - Canada’s transportation safety watchdog warned on Thursday that more must be done to protect passengers of hot-air balloons, saying the vehicles should regulated like any other commercial aircraft.

<p>Hot air balloons take part in a mass ascent during the International Balloon Fiesta above the countryside near Bristol in western England, August 10, 2007. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor</p>

The warning followed two accidents involving sight-seeing balloons last year, including one in which two passengers burned to death in an incident captured in dramatic amateur video footage seen around the world.

The Transportation Safety Board said hot-air balloons can carry up to 12 fare-paying passengers, but they are not regulated as closely as other similar-sized commercial aircraft.

A TSB report recommended increased federal regulation following an investigation into the August 11, 2007, crash of a sight-seeing balloon near Winnipeg, Manitoba, that left the pilot and two passengers with serious burns.

The balloon’s propane fuel system began leaking as the craft’s basket was dragged along the ground by high winds. The basket burst into flames before all 12 people on board were able to evacuate.

The balloon did not have an emergency fuel shut-off system, which the TSB report recommended be made mandatory for all hot-air balloons that carry fare-paying passengers.

Less than two weeks after the Winnipeg crash, a sight-seeing balloon caught fire as it prepared for takeoff near Vancouver.

The balloon broke free of its moorings and lifted off before everyone could escape. A mother and daughter were killed and 11 other people injured, including some passengers who jumped from the burning craft in midair.

The president of the company involved in the Winnipeg crash said the sight-seeing balloons are regulated and the pilots are licensed, but the industry is always interested in ways to improve safety.

“There are so few accidents in ballooning that when things like this happen they really catch our attention,” Barry McGonigle of Belmont, Ontario-based Sundance Balloons told CBC television.

Reporting Allan Dowd, editing by Rob Wilson

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