Are hot-air balloons really dangerous?

Teresa Machan examines the background to last week's accident in Egypt in which 19 tourists died.

Based on the premise that it couldn't happen twice, at least not in the same week, I took a hot-air balloon flight in Luxor in 2009, the day after a crash there in which 16 people were injured. A fortnight ago, I happened to watch a television interview with one of the survivors. It made for uncomfortable viewing - even more so in retrospect, in the light of last week's accident in the same district, in which 19 tourists died.

Balloon flights are weather dependent. I have taken four, in Australia, Burma, Nepal and Luxor. Twice I expected not to fly, yet each time the weather improved and we had an unforgettable trip.

The next time I explore the Valley of the Kings, however, it will be from the ground. The 2009 crash there, caused by a pilot flying too close to a mobile phone mast, was not the first, and led to flights being suspended for six months. Doubts were raised about safety, and a readiness among balloon operators to fly in unsuitable conditions. The Egyptian Civil Aviation Authority imposed new regulations, including the establishment of a balloon take-off zone, and ordered 42 pilots to be retrained.

Jon Rudoni, managing director of Wickers World, a British balloon-tour operator, argued that recent upheavals in Egypt may have resulted in less rigorous enforcement of regulations. He urged tourists to use common sense, and added: "In a country where people are struggling with the bare necessities of everyday life, how much emphasis is going to be placed on safety?

The next time I explore the Valley of the Kings it will be from the ground.

" In Britain, ballooning is considered one of the safest of all airborne pursuits. Since the inception of commercial flying in the late Eighties, about 2.5million people have flown, and there has been just one death.

"A UK commercial pilot licence is regarded as the best in the world," Mr Rudoni said. "We curse the hoops we must jump through. If a balloon needs attention I can't so much as lay a spanner on it until a licensed engineer has looked at it, but you only have to look at our safety record to see that it's worth it.

"Our industry is sufficiently mature, but in a lot of countries it's about backhanders, corruption and paying off officials. Before long you find it's so-and-so's son flying who has only 20 hours' experience."

Last week's incident in Egypt - which has again led to the grounding of all flights there - appears to have involved an explosion. Arthur Street, director of Aerosaurus Balloons and also of the British Association of Balloon Operators, pointed out that balloons in Britain are fuelled by propane gas - which he said is not readily available in other countries. "Ground crews mix butane up with other things, which can be quite dangerous," he added.

In Luxor, competition between balloon operators is fierce, and a decline in tourist trade since the Arab Spring had prompted pricecutting. A flight over the Valley of the Kings costs about $A120 per person.

By comparison, a flight over the Kathmandu Valley costs from $A480 with Nepal Vista, and one over the temples of Bagan in Burma costs $A290 through the sole operator there, Balloons Over Bagan. Brett Melzer, co-owner of the latter company, said it followed British aviation law to the letter and even sent staff to Britain for training. It has flown 10,000 people over the temples this year, and in 14 years its safety record has been unblemished.

"With adventure activities you get what you pay for, and if it's too good to be true, it probably is," he said. "Done properly, ballooning is not a cheap activity. A global benchmark is £150 to £300 ($A220-$A440)."

Could authorities outside Egypt have done more to protect holidaymakers? The Federation of Tour Operators (FTO), which represents Britain's leading tour operators on issues such as safety, last commissioned an independent inquiry by experts into balloon flights in 2008.

Victoria Bacon, head of communications at Abta, the travel association, said: "It's difficult to compare [conditions] now with pre 2009. But tourism is [the Egyptians'] livelihood - they won't want to cut corners.

"Some activities are riskier than others, but every tour operator promoting excursions abroad will perform some sort of safety check. There have been individual checks by tour operators in Luxor since 2009. Most conduct their own audits annually."

She added that, in the light of this week's crash, Abta would be co-ordinating additional rigorous safety inspections involving British balloon experts.

The Telegraph, London