A century ago giant airships—–blimps and zeppelins and such—–were considered the future of air transport, but with their safety called into question by the Hindenburg disaster and the increased reliability of airplanes, they were quickly reduced to quaint novelties floating over sports stadiums. Thanks to the cost of fuel and growing concern for the environment, how-ever, the airship may be primed for a comeback.
Airships are far slower than jets—– generally reaching speeds of 100 miles per hour—–but they are also far more fuel efficient. Unlike trains and cars, they require little infrastructure; new models can land on water and get to remote places without the need for roads or rails. They can carry heavier loads than planes and move faster than ships.
Several companies, including Boeing, are taking a serious interest. The impetus is not necessarily out
of an ecological concern (Boeing’s forthcoming airship, the SkyHook,
is targeted for oil-exploration firms), but the concept is catching on for broader applications.
The Washington-based Millennium Airship Inc.’s SkyFreighter, like the Boeing model, is geared for heavy lifting, though it has no Chinook rotors and could conceivably be modified for tourism. Aeros Corp., in California, is already targeting the travel industry, developing its buoyant AerosCraft for long, luxurious voyages, with a cabin five times larger than that of a 747.
Naturally, the slow travel movement is keeping a close eye on airship developments. The British World SkyCat Ltd. has already carried sightseers around London, and similar dirigible day trips are in the works for Monterey Bay in California. It’s still hard to imagine daily airship departures for the 24-hour flight from New York to Los Angeles. But if travelers take to these unusual, slow-moving flying machines, pragmatic use of airships may become more viable—–and even common.