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Tired of Airplanes? How About a Zeppelin?

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Blimp overheadIt’s been so long since zeppelins sailed American skies that many people don’t even know the term refers to something other than a legendary British rock band.

Others may associate the cylindrical airships with the fiery tragedy of the Hindenburg, which killed 35 people and ended the golden age of zeppelin travel in 1937.

But could zeppelins be making a comeback?

One San Francisco-based company has revived the idea of using the airships for passenger travel after a 70-year hiatus.

Brian Hall, the owner of Airship Ventures, got the idea to offer aerial tours of the Bay Area and Napa Valley wine country by zeppelin after riding in one in Germany, home of one of only three zeppelins in the world.

Hall was so mesmerized by his experience that he had one commissioned by German manufacturer Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik and shipped across the Atlantic by freighter ship. After flying from the port of Beaumont, Texas to Mountain View, California, the airship is set to start offering $500-a-flight rides to tourists on Friday.

Unlike the Hindenburg-era zeppelins, today’s airships use non-flammable helium (instead of hydrogen) to stay aloft, and have carried more than 80,000 passengers safely since they were reintroduced to the world a few years back. They also shouldn’t be confused with ballpark blimps, which don’t have rigid internal frames like zeppelins.

Invented in the late 19th century by German count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the airships were commonly used in Europe and America during the pre-war era for commercial passenger transport and military operations. They disappeared after the war, partly as a result of the Hindenburg disaster, and partly as a result of the turbulent political and economic issues of the time.

Airship ventures zeppelinSo what are the prospects for the revival of zeppelin-based transit? Will we soon be trading in the cramped seats and lousy service of airlines for the 360-degree views and calm elegance of airships?

A price of $500 per ride is pretty comparable to a round-trip ticket from San Francisco to New York City. Or perhaps commuters in traffic-clogged cities like Los Angeles and Seattle will use them to bypass gridlock?

After all, the new Zeppelin has been classified by the FAA as a “commuter utility airship,” and the spire of the Empire State Building was originally intended as a dirigible docking point.

Well, not necessarily. Though Airship Ventures has ordered two more zeppelins, which it hopes to use to offer tours through the skies of the East Coast and Florida, the airships are likely too slow and impractical to be use for mass transit.

The cabins of the 246-foot long craft, which are longer than a 747, only hold 12 passengers and 2 crew members, and only fly 35-40 miles per hour at an altitude of 1,200 feet. They are also hugely subject to weather, and can’t be flown when conditions are less than optimal.

Though the idea of using zeppelins for cargo transport has been floated periodically, the startup costs are prohibitive, and in the current economic climate it seems unlikely that this type of plan would get off the ground, as it were. So for now it seems that the massive airships will continue to occupy the niche market as a tourist attraction.

Related links: San Francisco Chronicle, CNN, Airship Ventures

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

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