A Whole Different Kind of Flying
It was deep in swampy Siberia one night in 1929 when, far overhead in the cold sky, some people were having a little too much fun. They turned on the phonograph, danced, and got rather drunk. Captain Lehmann of the Graf Zeppelin intervened, reminding the passengers that they were on an expedition, not in a flying nightclub, and the noise of the party could interfere with the crew’s ability to hear the airship’s instruments. To change the style of entertainment, he got out his accordion and pleased the crowd with sentimental German songs instead.
Today, the Graf Zeppelin’s feat of circumnavigating the globe by air is no longer unusual, yet the idea of a flying nightclub over wild Siberia is almost as exotic today as it was when long-distance flight was in its infancy. Habitual air passengers are used to enduring joyless, cramped hours in a crowded tube, maybe trying to sleep in uncomfortable positions, then arriving at their faraway destinations discombobulating fast, and enduring a couple of days of jetlag. To spontaneously lapse into drinking and dancing is the last thing anyone expects to do while flying in the 21st century.
But airships offer a whole different kind of flying, as illustrated by the replica of the Hindenburg’s dining area that can be visited at the Zeppelin Museum in Germany. Space was available to walk around, view the landscape, write a few letters or play cards and enjoy a full dinner.
As Different as Cats and Dogs
If there is a conventional wisdom about aviation, it is that when mankind ventured to fly through the air, he tried different methods, and decided that wing warping and aerodynamic lift in a heavier-than-air craft was the best. Airships were abandoned, presumably, as a technological wrong turn. One might as well say that when mankind first ventured to domesticate carnivorans, he tried different species, and learned that the best carnivoran species to domesticate was the dog, and concluded that there is no need for cats.
Just as dogs and cats sometimes compete (e.g., as children’s pets) but usually do different jobs, giant airships and airplanes would sometimes compete, but usually do different jobs. Similarly, dogs and cats do not substitute for each other any more than they do for other domestic animals just because they are fellow carnivorans. Airships and airplanes are not closer substitutes for each other than for other modes of transportation just because they are both aircraft.
Flying on a giant airship would be a different experience than flying on an airplane. The trip would take longer, but the interior of an airship could be roomy and comfortable, with space to allow for architectural differentiation, artistry, and luxury. Amenities could abound. A passenger airship could have room for playgrounds, theaters, restaurants, cubicles for telecommuting professionals, and private bedrooms, though everything would have to be optimized for lightweight design. (No swimming pools: too heavy.) Passengers or crew could probably open the windows. There might be a room with a plexiglass floor to enjoy the view a thousand meters or so below.
For Long-distance Passenger Travel, Airplanes are the Mode to Beat
Some passengers just want to get there and will put up with a lot of discomfort for the sake of speed. At only one-fifth the speed, a passenger airship would have a major competitive disadvantage versus jet aircraft serving customers in a hurry. That is why aspiring airship builders today are more focused on cargo. Still, some passenger markets for airships will surely emerge if airships get big enough to realize their potential and accumulate a safety track record.
Airship cruises would offer an experience similar to cruise ships, but with much better views. Older passengers for whom an airplane ride is a taxing physical ordeal might sacrifice time for the comfort of an airship. Families with young children might prefer a day of fun and relaxation in a spacious airship gondola to a few hours of confining fussy children in airplane seats, or days in the car with the perpetual question, “Are we almost there?” Others will take the airship for a pet’s sake. Spacious airships could be pet friendly, with a dog kennel on board and room to walk a dog on leash.
“Flight shaming” by environmentalists could be crucial in pushing corporations to make the necessary adjustments and accommodations to shift business travel from gas-guzzling jetliners to low-carbon airships whenever possible. These days, after all, an “electronic” office can be taken anywhere where a high speed internet connection is available, which may soon be everywhere thanks to Starlink’s low earth orbit satellites. Some traveling employees would pick the slow option from green convictions or for comfort and pleasure.
Flying hotels. Better yet, by serving as “flying hotels,” giant airships could offer some passengers an option that would effectively be equally fast as the airplane alternative, when passengers’ need to sleep is taken into account. From Chicago to New York is about 1,150 miles. It takes about two and a half hours to fly. It might take twelve hours in a giant airship. But an airplane passenger, upon arrival, typically needs to get a hotel. An airship passenger could sleep on the airship, in a bed, in a private room. So, two business travelers from Chicago, one going by airship, the other by airplane, might depart at the same time in the evening and be well rested and ready to do business in New York at the same time the following day. And the airship traveler has saved himself the price of a hotel.
Motorcycle ferries. Sometimes, airships might compete for passengers by letting passengers bring complementary means of transportation with them. An airship car ferry service probably would not be sufficiently affordable, because cars are heavy, but bicycles and motorcycles could be taken on board an airship at a reasonable cost. Ride-on, ride-off airship service for motorcyclists and bicyclists could be very appealing to travelers who want to avoid the hassle and expense of arranging parking at their place of origin and ground transport at their destination. It might be especially important in the global South, where, in contrast with the global North, the growth of motorized transportation has taken a predominantly two-wheeled rather than four-wheeled form.
Charter Airship Flights for Conferences, School Trips and Religious Pilgrimages
Another passenger application worth considering has few parallels in any other mode of transportation: charter airship flights.
Suppose a giant airship capable of carrying 1,000 people could be chartered for $50,000 per day. Sold out, the per person cost for two days’ giant airship rental would divide to an affordable $100/person round trip. It would have a range of 1,500 to 2,000 miles per day. It could depart from, and land at, any airship station, and airship stations would be cheaper and therefore could be more common than airports. On board, passengers could have private rooms. But somehow a lot of passengers would have to be assembled in one place. To what uses might such an airship be put?
Two ideas are (a) school trips, and (b) religious pilgrimages.
When the time came for the trip, a giant airship would come to the appointed station, where the assembled passengers would be waiting with suitcases in hand. In the case of a school trip, the destination might be a fun and relaxing location, like a tropical island, or a place with educational value, like Rome. In the case of a religious pilgrimage, the destination would be a place regarded as holy, like Mecca for Muslims, or Jerusalem or Santiago de Compostela for many Christians. The airship could offer cheapness, thanks to economies of scale, and allow passengers who enjoy one another’s company to socialize comfortably. College students might have dance parties on board the airship, or, if more studiously inclined, lectures, while religious pilgrims would prefer worship services.
These scenarios sounds far fetched because nothing like this happens today. But no mode of transportation available today could carry a college student body or a crowd of religious pilgrims from point to point all over the world, in comfort, and cheaply. In a world of giant airships, it would pay to organize pleasure trips with big, friendly crowds.
Passengers and cargo often travel together, and could share an airship, just as passengers and freight share airplanes, only more comfortably. Weight is scarcer than space on an airship. Huge holds are relatively easy to add. Cargo will typically take very little of the space, so a giant airship filled to 80-90% of its weight capacity with cargo could offer 100 passengers or so very roomy accommodations.
Smart pricing for joint passenger-cargo flights would take into account the willingness of each to pay. Some cargo might queue for cheap extra space on airships primarily serving passengers. In other cases, a high-volume cargo route could let passengers hitch rides to destinations they might not have considered going to, but for the dirt-cheap fares. In poor areas, like Northern Canada, the combi-passenger/freight airship is a certainty.
For the Crew: Not Like an Office, but a Home Away from Home
The jobs of the airship crewman would be unlike aviation employment today. For an airplane pilot, the cockpit is like their office. They sit for a few hours, alert and focused and busy in a narrow room, then they are done. For airship crews, by contrast, the airship would become a part-time home. The crew could stay on board one or more days at a time, sleeping and waking up, eating, maybe connecting with family over satellite internet. Operations would be staffed more like an ocean ship, with someone always on watch, but lots of time to rest or pursue other duties. Cargo airships could be diverted more often in bad weather, and left waiting while a storm system passed. It would be a more slow-paced, adventurous career than flying on an airplane.
These sketches of possible airship applications should suffice to illustrate how airships and airplanes are as different as cats and dogs. No jetliner is going to allow a dance party, but it might be routine on future airships.