Sunday, July 20, 2008

Floating an Old Idea: Airships

The airline industry's altimeter indicates that it is approaching the bottom line at rapid speed. Are there any clever ideas for upgrading the experience for passengers while helping the airlines regain financial altitude?

BusinessWeek's Dean Foust recently asked readers that question on his "Traveler's Check" blog. Foust posted some of the best ideas he heard ("as well as some of the most whimsical") online and in the July 28 issue of the magazine. My personal favorite came from a reader who offered up a century-old solution: passenger airships....
"There is no way the airlines can continue to loft that much metal across the skies at the rate of oil depletion we are witnessing. The only way to keep air travel viable is to lessen the fuel required, and the only way to do that is with airships, or dirigibles. They are slower, but use far less energy to carry a greater load."
As it happens, Boeing recently announced plans to begin building a huge new airship for SkyHook International Inc., a privately held Canadian company based in Calgary, Alberta. But the helium-filled Jess Heavy Lifter, or JHL-40, is for hauling cargo rather than passengers.

The proposed airship would be 300 feet long and 210 feet wide, with four helicopter engines to help it lift 40 tons of cargo (80,000 pounds) and carry it more than 200 miles without needing to refuel. SkyHook's Web page includes an information sheet, as well as numerous annotated conceptual illustrations (like the one above) showing the ship lifting tractors and lumber, helping erect tall electrical transmission towers and fighting forest fires. "SkyHook services will first be offered in remote regions of the world where conventional transportation infrastructure doesn't already exist or where building such infrastructure is difficult, costly and environmentally unfavourable," the site says.

The vehicle is designed to be operated by a crew of three with room for two complete crews for long-distance hauls -- but "no passengers, essential crew only."

We'll see if this big idea gets off the ground, unlike other ventures with designs for huge new cargo-hauling airships. One of most notable recent failures was Germany's CargoLifter AG, which went under before it could realize its plans for a vehicle designed to carry four times as much as the proposed Boeing-SkyHook ship. (Some of CargoLifter's shareholders have established a new company to try to revive the idea, but apparently on a less ambitious scale.)

Another German company, Zeppelin NT, has been building and operating passenger airships for tourist excursions. The Federal Aviation Administration recently approved flying Zeppelin NT's cigar-shaped craft over the United States and U.S. corporate partner Airship Ventures hopes to begin operating in the San Francisco area soon.

Meanwhile, one of Zeppelin NT's dirigibles is spending this summer flying tourists over London. The 30- to 60-minute flights carry passengers up to 1,000 feet over the city. The price is high too (£185-260, or about $370-520), but reports and photos in the Times, Daily Mail and Guardian still made me jealous. (I saw one of these vehicles flying over Friedrichshafen, the German company's home base on Lake Constance, when I visited the zeppelin museum there six years ago. Alas, it was a last-minute visit and the tickets for zeppelin rides needed to be booked far in advance.)

The timetable for the Boeing-SkyHook venture is a bit more up in the air. Boeing plans to build two production prototypes of the JHL-40 at its Rotorcraft Systems facility near Philadelphia. Company officials told Aviation Week they expected their airships to be ready to fly sometime in late 2012.

Robert Breidenthal, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics at the University of Washington, shared some thoughts with Xconomy Seattle on obstacles that Boeing and SkyHook will face. Among them: dealing with turbulence and aerodynamic control. Another challenge, Breidenthal said, is the price of helium -- which, it just so happens, is going up.

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