Economics of Airships for Perishable Food Trade

Economics of Airships for Perishable Food Trade

By: Barry E. Prentice, Transport Institute, University of Manitoba, Richard P. Beilock, University of Florida, and Alfred J. Phillips, A.J. Phillips & Associates


The flight of the world’s first heavier-than-air powered vehicle took just 12 seconds in 1903 and heralded the birth of a new transport mode. In the days, months, and years that followed Kitty Hawk, it must have been evident that airplanes had a future, but not to what shape or extent. For the first 50 years, airships and airplanes were head to head competitors; particularly on the long endurance cross oceanic markets. The technological impetus given to airplanes by the exigencies of war settled the matter in favour of airplanes for the balance of the 20th Century. As we enter the 21st Century however, we may be about to witness the rebirth of large airships as a means of transporting perishable cargoes and passengers.

Except for infrequent use as billboards, camera platforms and novelty tours, commercial uses for airships ended three quarters of a century ago. For decades, the memory of the Hindenburg catastrophe, as well as technological advances in heavier-than-air flight, trucking, and maritime transport made the large airship seem a slow, cumbersome, and ultimately tragic detour in the history of transportation. Interest has been renewed in airships due to technological developments in a number of fields; including materials science, engines, weather forecasting, avionics and computer assisted design. With improved performance and cost profiles, large airships are being considered again, but for new roles in the movement of general freight, fluids, indivisible loads, and perishable food products as well as passengers.

Interest in airships has been heightened further by their indirect advantages. These vehicles could mitigate several negative externalities associated with other forms of transport. Concerns about port, road, and airport congestion, and evidence of climate change have caused the economically advanced nations to reconsider their transportation systems. As most industrial countries are net importers of petroleum, the inherent fuel efficiency of airships is a further economic incentive. Consequently, many nations are taking a hard second look at airship technology.

Over the last 30 years, airship technology has gained a loyal following. At the time of this writing, at least a dozen firms in ten different countries are developing research prototypes and commercial airships. In addition, the U.S. Department of Defense has issued a request for information (DARPA, 2004) for development of an airship capable of carrying very large and/or heavy cargoes and personnel.

The creation of a new mode of transport can have profound economic effects. Improved service and lower transportation costs can stimulate new commodity flows, industrial activity and trade routes. In this paper, we consider the business case for using airships to transport Hawaiian pineapple/papaya to the U.S. mainland. The inherent strengths and weaknesses of airships, relative to other modes, are examined with a particular view toward exploring this possible early application of long-distance transport. On a more general level, it is hoped that this paper will stimulate thought and discussion about the potential for airships to create a paradigm shift in freight and passenger transportation.

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