How to choose a broker
This may be your first time buying a balloon ride, you may have no idea where to start, what to look for, or even what questions to ask. Take a few minutes to read this information to become a confident consumer. Admittedly, this is a little lengthy - but worth learning for the safety and enjoyment of your adventure!
How to Choose an Experienced Balloon Ride Company and Not Just a Ride “Broker” and the Questions to Ask Any Company Before You Buy
If you are interested in just the Questions to Ask Before you Buy Click Here.
Ballooning is a unique facet of aviation unlike any other form of flight. To be lifted motionless from the bonds of earth, balloon flight seems to happen by some mystic force. Indeed, the first balloonists believed that it was the magical properties contained in smoke and not the heat of the fire that carried their craft aloft. A balloon ride is a once in a lifetime experience for most passengers. Given that fact, it is imperative that you identify a competent and reliable company to provide that experience. While the flight itself is often described by passengers as enchanting and magical, the reality is that fun for the passengers is derived from years of study and practice on the part of the balloon crew. You should not have to be a wizard to figure out who to fly with. This information and a little effort on your part will allow you to select a company that has your safety and enjoyment as their first priority.
An internet search for any product or service, especially a balloon ride, presents a bewildering array of choices. A Google search for a “balloon ride in Maryland” will give you hundreds of hits while there are only 5 or 6 legitimate balloon ride companies in the entire state! How do you pick a company that will ensure you have a safe, enjoyable, and memorable balloon ride experience? We provide the following information to assist you in making an informed purchase. Why do this you may ask? We believe that an educated consumer is our best customer. The ballooning community is much too small to allow unscrupulous vendors with deceptive practices to remain in business. To do so has dire consequences for our industry as a whole.
I have been flying passengers for over 30 years and am amazed at the number of people willing to put their lives in the hands of someone that they know little, if not anything, about. You would not believe how often that the very first time I am questioned by a passenger about my experience occurs after the balloon is already off the ground and hundreds of feet in the air! I have seen this so many times that I have begun to provide humorous answers in the hope that it will alleviate some of the nervous energy that prompted them to ask the question in the first place. Two of my favorite answers to "how long have you been doing this?" are: "this is my first flight, I'm going to read that chapter on landing tonight," or "I've never done this before but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night" A little gallows humor for certain, but it does seem to lighten the mood and help dispel the first few moments of anxiety that every first time passenger feels.
The fact of the matter is that once you're aloft, you have no place to go but along for the ride. At this point you are probably better off not asking questions at all; you may not like what you hear and the answer won't affect the outcome; that is unless you have chosen to fly with an inexperienced pilot and your questions distract him or her from flying the balloon - now that could affect the outcome! I hope that you find this page informative and use the knowledge to find a safe and competent pilot flying for a reputable company to provide your adventure.
There is a big difference between the two. A balloon ride operator owns and operates (that is they fly or pilot) the balloon that you will actually fly in. They are in business to sell you the actual ride. A ride broker does not own any balloons and is in business to sell you a gift or ride certificate, which is just a piece of paper. The number one ballooning site on the web, Hot Air Ballooning.com , has devoted time and energy to approving balloon ride companies as legitimate operators worldwide. You may view their directory of approved balloon ride companies to guarantee that you are dealing with a genuine ride company that operates its own balloons and not just a broker that doesn't own or fly balloons and is simply selling you a certificate. This point can be confusing because most balloon ride operators also provide certificates or vouchers for their flights; the difference is that when you purchase a certificate from an operator, you will be flying with that same company when you take your flight.
Your goal is to purchase a safe, affordable, quality flight from a genuine ride company by dealing directly with the company that will provide the service that you purchased. A company that is interested in providing a level of service that will create a memorable flight experience for their passengers for years to come.
The business model of balloon ride brokers is to sell gift certificates in bulk for balloon rides, then pay a local ride company after the certificate holder takes their ride. What is wrong with that you may ask? Especially since the broker is paying the ride company and you have what appears to be a wide selection of companies to choose from. Unfortunately, all too often things are not as they seem. Many times customers are told that they may take their flights in their local area with a legitimate company only to find out after the purchase that the local company does not accept the broker's certificate.
Customers have reported difficulty redeeming the certificates, having to travel hundreds of miles to find a company willing to provide the ride, and difficulty with service and refunds. Additional fees, surcharges and hidden costs often make what seemed like a great deal more costly than if you had gone with the locally owned and operated company in the first place. Since the brokers sell their rides at reduced rates, keep a percentage of the sale, and then pay the ride company even less, what company would agree to fly these passengers at this price? Many do so because the broker tells them they can use these passengers to “fill in” their unwanted or slack times, or whenever they have availability. This is attractive to the ride operator but severely limits your options as a paying customer. You may end up with little choice for the dates and times of a flight and may receive less than stellar service. In the worst case scenario, the ride company may have so badly ruined its own reputation in their local area that it has no customers of its own. It may be forced to rely on these broker rides just to stay in business.
One of the things many brokers tout is their 100% safety record; how do you have any safety record at all when you don't own or operate any balloons, when it appears that you have never flown a passenger, and have no control over the company that will provide the ride? Lastly, passengers are often told “yes you can” to any request in order to make the sale. Passengers are seldom given accurate details about the limitations of balloon flight, either because the sales person may not know the real answer or it was not anticipated on the script. Care must be taken when looking for a balloon ride company, online or when responding to a newspaper advertisement, to ensure that you are dealing with a reputable company. Hot Air Ballooning.com has done extensive research of one broker, ThrillPlanet and 800-SKY-RIDE, and their business practices that have led to investigations by the Georgia Attorney Generals office. In our area, the latest to pretend to be local is "Maryland Hot Air Balloon Rides" in Baltimore. This company has identical web sites for many states with just a simple change of names. They are a national broker trying to convince you that they are a local company!
None of these descriptions, by themselves, are clear indicators of a broker. Taken together they will help you narrow your search for a legitimate hot air balloon ride operator.
Search Engine Listing Results
Brokers are often the top listing on any search in the “sponsored links.” They have huge advertising budgets and run hundreds of identical sites with different domain names and web addresses to mislead you into thinking they are local. One broker has 1600 web sites for their product. These sites share the same page design and use local street addresses. They change the city or state name for the individual site to make the company look local. They often use a local area code telephone number that forwards calls to an out of state call center. Maryland Balloon Rides is a recent example in our area of just such practices. They list a Baltimore City street address that is actually a city park in Federal Hill and use a 410 area code that is answered in Atlanta, Georgia! The picture that Google Places shows of the address is that of the Park.
Balloon Ride Operators are usually further down the list and not in the paid "sponsored" section at the top. They rarely have more than one site. They have verifiable addresses and staff at that location.
Number of Locations
Brokers have rides available nationally, internationally, and at hundreds of locations.
Balloon Ride Operators usually have only one, two, or three states that they list as flying in. Often only one state, especially if that state is geographically large. If they operate in multiple states it is usually in border areas where the state lines are close together, i.e. MD, PA, and DE, MD and VA, or NJ, NY, & PA for example.
There is a simple reason for this; ballooning is a very weather dependent activity and the decision to fly is often made very close to flight time. If passengers have a substantial travel distance it poses logistical problems for the balloon company; the weather could be uncertain or it could change making the decision about whether to fly or not very difficult for the balloon ride company! Most companies don’t solicit passengers from more than two hours drive time away. If they do, they are more interested in your money than the inconvenience to you of having to drive a long distance for a possibly postponed flight. Depending upon the geographic location of your flight and the time of year that you intend to fly, you may only have a 50/50 chance of the weather cooperating on any given day!
How Many Types of Rides
Brokers offer rides in everything - Balloons, Gliders, Skydiving, Helicopters, etc. A new innovation on the web is the birth of the adventure gift company. These are companies that provide experience gifts in just about everything from adventure traveling to scuba diving. Most include hot air balloon adventures and airplane adventure rides. You are better off dealing directly with the company whose service it is that you wish to purchase. Keep in mind that the actual company specializes in what it does, whereas the brokers only specialty is selling a commodity represented by a piece of paper.
Balloon Ride Operators are most often one stop shopping for just a balloon ride or other services associated with only a balloon. A few companies have diversified and added airplane or biplane rides. This is because those companies have an actual pilot or pilots on staff with multiple licenses for different categories of aircraft and they also own an airplane.
Brokers are volume dealers that rely on the number of rides sold to make their profit. This is why they advertise so heavily. They advertise prices that are substantially lower than the area market. They advertise in all major newspapers and other media especially during peak gift giving times. There are various offers of discount coupons, holiday specials, and the lowest price available anywhere. They must attempt to garner a large percentage of the market to stay in business. Beware of pricing that seems substantially out of line from the rest. The reality is there are often hidden "fees" and surcharges that show up only when it's time to take your ride. These "extras" are added at the time of flight and may, in the end, make the cheap balloon ride more expensive than the legitimate offer advertised by the local company. They pay the ride operator only after the ride is taken and count on a large percentage of these rides not being utilized. They make their money by hoping that disgruntled passengers will simply go away when they make it difficult to redeem certificates or next to impossible to get a refund.
Balloon Ride Operators will not usually have the lowest advertised price due to the fact that they have to purchase, maintain and insure the equipment necessary to fly you. In addition to the hardware, the operator must hire personnel and learn the skills to provide you the service. This burden adds up in actual dollar costs and years of commitment. Very often it is said that "you get what you pay for" and this could not be more true than in the balloon ride business.
Why the Price Variations?
There are many reasons for price differential. Brokers do not own aircraft and have none of the costs associated with owning and operating them and this is one of the reasons they are so low cost. Their only overhead is maintaining an office or call center and its staff. Actual aircraft or balloon ownership costs include: initial purchase of the balloon which could be 30 to 60 thousand dollars, or more, depending on the size of the balloon, insurance, fuel, a chase vehicle, a pilot and ground crew. There are significant variations of price among legitimate balloon ride operators. Full time, professional ride companies will often be the best value for the price. They may not be the least expensive but are often the most experienced. Many companies may be part time and are actually subsidizing a hobby. Since they do not rely on the income from ballooning to live on, they are often lower in price.
Geography also plays a role in pricing. Many parts of the country are seasonal for balloon flights; this is because the weather stops cooperating, or passenger demand ceases during the winter months, or both. Areas that do not enjoy year round flying, have higher pricing during their normal flying season. This is done to offset the months that they do not or cannot fly. Places that have mild seasons and good flying conditions all year around, generally have lower pricing. You will also find a large number of companies in these areas taking advantage of the ability to fly year round. Both demand and supply is high in these areas and the cost to fly will be commensurate.
Toll Free Numbers
Brokers will most often use toll free or 800 numbers for their telephone. Many have also begun using a local number that forwards to an out of state headquarters or call center in an effort to appear local. Pay attention and listen to see if your call is being handled at a call center, if it is, you have called a broker. Don't be afraid to ask where am I calling? If they answer this question with a question such as where are you calling from, this is a clear indicator that it is a broker. Another tactic for them is to say that they "book for the local company." No local companies use a booking service. Ask if you can come by the address listed.
Balloon Ride Operators may also use a toll free number and this
alone makes it the least reliable indicator. If you are speaking to a member of the balloon crew or a pilot you have most likely called a ride operator.
This section will provide you with the questions to ask before you purchase a ride and before you climb aboard for a flight. More importantly, it will give you the information necessary to interpret the answers that you receive; permitting you to make an informed purchase.
• How long have you been in business?
How long a company has been in business is usually a good indicator of customer service, safety, and how well the business is being run. Companies that have been in business a long time must be paying attention to detail and providing good service. The market will generally weed out companies that treat their customers with indifference, provide a shoddy product or service, or are in it for the fast buck! Excellent companies persevere, are in it for the long haul, and realize that trust and making a name for themselves is something that takes time and effort.
• What is your physical address in my area and are you a Corporation in my state?
If the company does not have a physical address or location in your area where you may meet them to obtain a certificate and the only option is by mail; that company is a broker. Use caution with published addresses on an internet search. One national broker, Thrill Planet, is currently listing their address as 394 Warren Avenue, Baltimore, MD - this address is a park in Federal Hill across from the Inner Harbor with no buildings on it! Use Google locations or Google Earth to see if it something other than the legitimate business that you are looking for. Locally owned and operated means that the company should have a vested interest in how you are treated as a customer. A satisfied customer will tell a handful of people about their experience; a dissatisfied customer will tell hundreds! You will be able to meet them at the address they have listed for their business and not have it be a park!
Out of town ride brokers base their sales on national volume and are not concerned with the level of service that you will receive. In fact, they have no control over the service that you receive because they have no control over the company that will fly you. They actually count on a large percentage of passengers never redeeming the certificate. There are many legal forms that a business may elect, but a Corporation is by far the best indicator of a legitimate business entity.
How many locations do you have? If there is more than one or the answer is “you may redeem certificates at multiple locations or nationwide” you are dealing with a broker. This is not to be confused with the number of launch sites that a company may have. Many ride operators take off from multiple locations but have only one office. If they say they're booking for the local company they are a broker.
• How many hours do you or do your pilots have and what are their names?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) licenses and regulates all balloon pilots and requires them to log their flight hours. The FAA minimum for a Commercial Balloon Pilot is only 35 hours of pilot-in command flight time. A full time pilot will obviously have more experience and more hours compared to a part time pilot.
The Balloon Federation of America (BFA) has established a Pilot Achievement Awards program that has levels 1 thru 8 or Student Aeronaut (balloon pilot) to Distinguished Aeronaut. The BFA requires a minimum of 700 flight hours in 600 flights, among other requirements, to qualify as a Distinguished Aeronaut. A level of 400 to 500 hours is a mid-level pilot and 1000 hours or more is an experienced pilot.
Recent experience and flying more than 75 hours per year will tend to indicate competency. Flying 30 hours a year, or less, is insufficient, in our opinion, to be at the top of your game. You may search the FAA airman registry to confirm a pilot’s certification by going here https://amsrvs.registry.faa.gov/airmeninquiry/ and first entering your own information. Use the pilot’s name and State to narrow your search. Unfortunately, this will only confirm that they have a license, not for how long, nor whether the pilot is current on the mandated requirements to act as a pilot-in-command.
If a company has only one pilot, it is a small operation and most likely a hobby business. Because ballooning is an expensive hobby, many pilots will obtain a commercial license to charge for rides in order to subsidize their hobby. Having multiple pilots is indicative of a full time ride business. Ask how long the pilot has had their license, not how long they have been in ballooning. Many balloon pilots start off as balloon ground crew members and may have been in the sport for years but only a pilot for a very short time. If the answer is five to seven years or less, you are generally dealing with a low time, limited experience pilot.
• Have you or your company ever had an accident?
Ask if any pilot has ever been refused insurance, if they have current insurance, or ever been required to file a report with the FAA or the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board). Most pilots have never had a run in with the FAA. To be sanctioned by the FAA usually requires a fairly egregious violation. If there are any reports of FAA violations, mishaps (FAA for accidents) or incidents (FAA for minor accidents) then beware.
Does the pilot participate in recurrent training above what is required by law? For example most insurance companies offer discounts to pilots who attend an annual safety seminar; does your pilot participate? If a company suddenly changes its name while operating the same aircraft or occupying the same location, this could be an attempt to distance themselves from being associated with the bad press and other repercussions from an accident or other significant problem including litigation and poor customer service history.
• Do you fly full time or part time?
This may seem a trivial question, but it is significant. Piloting a balloon is a skill that requires proficiency. Like any trade that requires skill, practice creates competence. Full time means professional pilots making a living with their pilot’s license and as such, they usually have more experience, hours, and practice. Part timers are generally doing something else for a living, not flying nearly as often, and possibly just supporting what would otherwise be an expensive hobby. This is not to say that there are not good and even great part time balloon pilots, there are. Simply stated, the more you do something and the more often you do it, the better you become at doing it!
• Is your crew trained and experienced? Do we have to help with the balloon?
A legitimate company will have all the crew necessary to operate the size balloon that they are flying. A full time company will have experienced crew that are well trained and paid. It is important that ground crew be as competent as the flight crew. A great crew can make an inexperienced pilot look good. Inexperienced crew can make a great pilot look bad! Put both an inexperienced crew and a rookie pilot together, and you have a recipe for trouble.
There are a few companies out there that advertise the "total ballooning experience" by putting you to work helping to inflate, deflate, and pack the balloon away. One company actually invites you to come out and experience crewing first hand by paying for the privilege of doing their hard work! It is perfectly acceptable to allow passengers to take as active a role as they wish (so long as proper instruction is provided) but it is not ok for paying passengers to be expected to work. If you have to help with the balloon, the company either does not have sufficient crew or is skimping.
• Do you own your balloon or balloons?
If the answer is “no” or “all the companies we use, own their balloon,” it's a broker. If it is just one balloon, it is a one pilot, small operator. Having more than one owned balloon typically means a full time balloon ride business operator with more than one pilot.
• What size balloons do you fly?
The larger the balloon the more lift it generates or the more weight it can carry. The more weight it can carry means more passenger capacity. The bigger the balloon the more it costs. Think of cars as a good analogy. Balloons are measured by the amount of cubic feet of air they will hold. Small or compact balloons are 56,000-77,000 cubic feet. The midsize balloon is in the 90-105,000 cubic foot range. SUV size balloons are 126-141,000 cubic feet and van or truck sized balloons are 180-300,000 plus cubic feet.
Full time companies generally use balloons larger than 105,000 cubic feet for their passenger capacity. If the company limits passenger weights or can carry just two or three passengers, they are operating a small balloon with limited capacity. Many companies will advertise this limited capacity as a positive, “just you and the pilot, a private charter.” Just keep in mind what that is really telling you; it is a small operation, one small balloon, and most likely a sport enthusiast with a hobby business. Most companies will offer private charters at an additional cost.
In addition to size and the ability to carry weight, how hot the weather is also determines a balloons lifting capability. The hotter the day, the less weight a balloon can carry. So, if a company talks about the number of passengers they can carry in cooler weather vs. hot weather, it is a smaller balloon with lift limitations. This is an important safety factor since balloons have a maximum continuous operating temperature that if exceeded, can cause damage to the balloon. The smaller the balloon the more heat it takes to lift the same weight and the safe operating temperature could be exceeded.
• Are gift certificates refundable or transferable?
If the answer is vague or evasive you should beware. This goes for any question that you may ask a company. If you don’t get straight answers when they are trying their best to have you as a customer, what kind of treatment will you get if you no longer wish to be their customer or if there is a dispute? Straight forward answers and their policies in writing is the way bona fide businesses conduct themselves. Anything else is simply unacceptable. Flights should be clearly refundable and easily transferred. Access to all policies should be written and provided to the customer.
Here are "Our" Answers to the Questions You Should Ask:
In addition to our Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, the staff of Light Flight Balloons, Inc. and Barnstormer Aero is pleased to provide the following answers to the questions above:
How Long in Business, Our Location, and Business Status?
Light Flight Balloons, Inc. began as Light Flight Hot Air Balloons, a sole proprietorship in 1980. We have been flying for over 30 years. Light Flight Balloons became a Corporation in the State of Maryland in 1996 and Barnstormer Aero is a wholly owned subsidiary of Light Flight Balloons, Inc.
We are a Bel Air, MD Company. We operated a physical storefront at 426 S. Main Street in Bel Air for nearly 14 years. Very little of our business required a storefront as most of our sales are over the telephone and the internet. We closed the Main Street location and moved to Street, MD which is twelve miles north of Bel Air. We keep a Bel Air Post Office box address for continuity of business and because quite a few people don't know where Street, MD is! In addition to the length of time we have been in business, we enjoy a Better Business Bureau rating of A+ with no complaints.
Pilot Names and Experience
Michael Gerred is our President and Chief Pilot. He has been flying balloons for over 30 years and has over 3000 hours of pilot-in-command time.
Stan Palmer is a contract Pilot. He has been flying balloons for 28 years and has over 1000 hours.
Fred Nickel and Joe Young are both contract pilots. They have over 20 years in ballooning and over 200 hours.
(Note: all hours here refer specifically to hot air balloon time - some of our pilots have thousands of hours in other types of aircraft)
We have never had an incident, mishap, or accident. We carry full insurance coverage at all times and more importantly, we have never had to use it! None of our pilots have ever been refused insurance or had to file any report with the FAA or NTSB while flying with Light Flight Balloons. All of our active pilots attend a Balloon Federation of America approved, safety refresher training seminar annually. Our Chief Pilot is also a featured speaker at many of these events and is the Chairman for the Safety Seminar held annually by the John Wise Balloon Society of Central PA.
Full or Part Time?
Light Flight is a full time balloon charter ride company flying all year around, seven days a week, weather permitting.
We employ paid crew who receive training with experienced crew. We also have volunteer crew, some of whom have been with us for over twenty years.
Ownership of Balloons or Aircraft
Light Flight Balloons, Inc. and or its President own and operate 14 hot air balloons and two fixed wing airplanes.
What Size Balloons?
Our balloons range in size from 77,000 cubic feet to 240,000 cubic feet. The small balloons are for tethering or flight training. The usual ride balloon is 126,000 to 141,000 cubic feet. There are no restrictions to passenger weights or temperatures that we may fly in.
Our certificates are both refundable and transferable. Our refund policy is one of the most lenient in the business. Refunds are made at any time within 6 months of purchase less 15% of the required deposit ($15.00) Certificates are transferable at no cost and interchangeable between a balloon and airplane ride. Read our Terms and Conditions page for a complete explanation of our policies, terms, and conditions provided to you in writing.
You are now equipped to ask intelligent questions and more importantly, you will understand the meaning of the answers that you receive. While we sell both balloon and biplane rides, we encourage you to shop the market. We are proud of the reputation that we have built in over thirty years in business and confident that we will have you as a customer after you examine the competition. We also stand ready to address any questions that you may have after reading this information. Additional information may be found on our FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) page or by calling us directly. Thank you for taking the time to learn more about us and our business.
Call us with your questions or if you wish to book a flight
Beware: the latest attempt to look like a Maryland based local business is a company calling themselves Maryland Hot Air Balloon Rides with an address of 394 Warren Avenue, Baltimore, MD - this address is a park on Federal Hill across from the Inner Harbor with no buildings on it! If you change the name to Virginia Hot Air Balloon Rides or PA, DE, or any other state and Google them, you will find an identical web site with only the state name and particulars being different. This is a broker posing as a local business! You will find that the Maryland 410 area code telephone number is forwarded to Thrill Planet in Atlanta or Kennesaw Georgia! Also, they have started another website called Baltimore Hot Air Balloons. Don't be fooled!Source: www.fun-flying.com