Ballooning company's summer up in the air due to propane problem

Nova Scotia's only hot-air balloon company faces cancelled flights and lost revenue this year after losing after-hours access to propane.

Seth Bailey started East Coast Balloon Adventures with his wife, Katherine, in 2011 in the Annapolis Valley. Bailey sells flights for sunsets and sunrises on weekends. That means he needs to refuel after a Friday or Saturday sunset flight to take off early the next morning. Hot-air balloons don't fly during the day due to disruptive thermal winds.

For years, he got his fuel from Total Energy in Coldbrook. "They were always a good partner," he said this week.

First, he paid them for after-hours access, but then he got his provincial propane dispenser certification and added Total Energy to his insurance policy so he could fill his own tanks up outside of business hours.

'Stuck on the ground'

"Unfortunately in the late fall, that business sold to another company — West Nova Fuels — and they removed the propane-dispensing equipment that we used to fill the balloons," he told CBC News. 

"We could end up cancelling flights and be stuck on the ground without fuel if we can't get propane after our evening flights."

Steve Sawler of West Nova Propane said it's not a supply issue, as several companies sell propane in the area. However, operating outside of regular hours causes added costs. There are also safety concerns connected to refueling after dark and the regulated industry errs on the side of safety, he added.

One solution is for companies who need fuel after closing time to buy more propane tanks and fill them during regular hours, Sawler said.

Season fast approaching

The Irving Big Stop in New Minas sells propane, but doesn't always have a qualified staff member on duty to dispense it. Bailey has contacted the company to see what arrangement it can make, but he hasn't heard back yet.

His season starts the third weekend in May and he's worried it could be a rough year.

Bailey could remove the tanks and fill them on a scale as you'd do with a barbecue tank but that still runs into the after-hours access problem. If he could get after-hours access to the scale, it'd be "doable," he said.

He's looked into buying two more tanks so he could swap them out but it would cost $8,000 to get the certified tanks the registered aircraft needs. 

'Limited opportunities to fly'

"We could realistically be in a position where we need to cancel flights when the weather is good simply because we don't have access to propane," Bailey said.

"It makes it very challenging. We do get limited opportunities to fly because of the weather so if you do have a good stretch of weather where you have evening and morning flights back to back and you have to cancel the morning flight because you don't have propane, your passengers are disappointed, you've lost revenue — it's unfortunate."

He's hoping to find a solution in a few weeks before the new season starts.