Balloon may be down for year

State's investigation could exceed 2 months

Mishap in winds stranded 16

Economics of fewer rides in autumn questionable

July 31, 2004|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

The state investigation into the tethered balloon ride mishap that stranded 16 passengers aloft over the Inner Harbor for nearly two hours this month is expected to take as much as 60 days or longer - increasing the likelihood that the attraction will not fly again this season.

"The longer it takes to get everything resolved, the more we have to consider in looking at reopening," said Alan M. Leberknight, president of the nonprofit Balloon Over Baltimore Inc. board.

"The heart of the season is from the time school stops to when it starts up again," he said. "That would have to be considered."

Two months from the July 17 accident would be mid-September, nearly the time when the downtown tourist attraction was due to shift to weekend-only operation.

Assuming it got clearance to fly at that point, operating for a few weekends before the season ends might not be worth it, Leberknight said, adding that a final decision would be up to the board.

But he stopped short of making any predictions.

"The board is going to be responsible," Leberknight said. "We are much more concerned about making good decisions than about making a decision within a certain time frame. It's going to take whatever time it takes."

The state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation, which is conducting the investigation, has interviewed the operator of the Lindstrand Hi- Flyer, some passengers and witnesses, state officials said this week. But many more interviews remain to be done.

State officials also have visited the balloon site next to the Port Discovery children's museum, collected information on operating procedures and asked the National Weather Service for data on weather conditions at the time of the accident, said Robert L. Lawson, commissioner of labor and industry for the state agency.

Given the number of people to interview, the challenges of communicating and scheduling visits with the balloon's English manufacturer and analyzing data from the computer devices that control the balloon operation, Lawson said, he did not expect to have more substantive information to release soon.

Leberknight said he was not surprised that officials are saying the investigation may take two months or longer.

The attraction, a money loser from its first season, has been beset by a variety of problems. A train fire stalled the balloon's initial opening in July 2001; the September 2001 terrorist attacks grounded it for more than a week, and the Washington-area sniper shootings in October 2002 deterred riders.

Insurance and taxes have been burdensome, sponsors have been elusive and then a snowstorm popped the balloon last winter. This season, it was bailed out by the nonprofit Abell Foundation.

Now, in the accident's aftermath, it could face higher insurance premiums, assuming it remains insurable, experts have said.

If the balloon ultimately is grounded by money woes, it would not be alone. Those in the industry say financial difficulties have grounded at least two balloons in the United States, where the tethered helium balloons are still a relative rarity.

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