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There is this question but I am hoping for more general answers to why airships are not more commonplace.

The previous question does bring up the cost of production (mainly because of hi-tech fibers used in body construction) and the high capital costs for constructing hangars for these airships.

However, civilization did operate fleets of these before and I'm just not certain why they have not 'come back' in a meaningful way. For instance, here are just a few uses that I can think of off-hand:

  • For tourism! Instead of a water-bourne cruise tourists can literally sail all over (I'd pay for that!)...
  • As the previous question implied, they can be used to carry cargo vast distances (although I am unsure if there is any real economic advantage here).

I know we use them in a small way for various things (military, sports, etc) but why are they not more commonplace?

I imagine the answer is mere economics but at the same time I feel there should be a market if for nothing else than tourism.


No one has really touched on the possibility of a cruise ship style airship. We have mentioned brief aerial tours but I'm talking about a semi-luxury week long trip in one of these things over very remote areas such as Alaska or the Siberia or even a desert... I realise there would not be room for all the luxuries of a cruise ship (pool, casino, etc) but I image about the same luxuries as a small yacht...

I imagine there are a lot of issues with long trips but can airships make unimproved 'port calls'? IE can they just set down for a few hours to let the passengers stretch their legs?

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Airships are much more susceptible to bad weather. With an airplane you can pretty much count on it taking off on time and arriving within a couple of minutes of the scheduled time. This allows operators to employ their aircraft with a reliability which an airship will never be capable of. This means that the investment made into an airliner will lead to a predictable stream of revenue and (hopefully) profit, whereas the airship might need to wait several days until it can take off again, or headwind might delay it by more than a day on a long trip. In this time, it will accumulate interest and fixed cost, but no additional revenue.

Scheduled air services were indeed first done with airships, but as soon as dependable aircraft were available, only a few niches like transatlantic travel were operated with airships. As soon as airplane performance covered those niches, airships became obsolete.

Today the most credible use of airships would be transportation of heavy equipment into remote areas. Tourism could be a second use, but the number of airships needed to cover this market is small. Airships do have some benefits:

  • no need to build roads or runways
  • carrying of outsize cargo is no problem
  • if the airship is big enough, payload can be immense
  • destinations can be anywhere, not only on a coast or a big river (where regular ships cover this niche more than adequately)

The few cases where the airship could be employed gainfully would not cover the expense of developing and building one. Development cost alone would be similar to the development cost of a new airliner!

But if we look back in history, even at a time when airships were available, big transportation tasks were done by aircraft. Papua has impenetrable jungles, and to transport dredging equipment and personnel to the Morobe goldfield from 1932 on, aircraft were used rather than airships. The huge dredges were dismantled for air transport and flown into Bulolo, where they were re-assembled and put to work. With a Zeppelin, less dismantling would have been needed, but just the complication of keeping the airship balanced when the load is released made this option less attractive.

For the history buffs: To transport very long items like the dredge shafts, a single-engined Junkers Ju-52 (Ju-52/1m) was used. It had a detachable rear fuselage with automatic couplings for the control rods. Spherical collar screws ensured precise positioning of the two fuselage sections.

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  • $\begingroup$ Are there any companies today (or ever) that operate airships to deliver that cargo to remote areas? $\endgroup$ – Matthew Peters Nov 23 '14 at 17:49
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthewPeters: I do not know any. Even the Zeppelins focused on passenger flights, apart from a short period when they carried bombs. Most of the blimps were used for observation or for advertising, and only the biggest of them could carry passengers. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Nov 23 '14 at 17:59
  • $\begingroup$ There is a proposal to make use of airships in the Canadian Arctic. This is because it's impossible to get road, rail or sea transport to many arctic destinations, so the only competition is with fixed-wing aircraft, where airships win for their cost per tonne and speed isn't so much of an issue. $\endgroup$ – DJClayworth Nov 24 '14 at 21:29
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthewPeters: In Germany, there was the company CargoLifter which planned to build, well, "cargo lifters". The first model CL160 was designed for 160 tons of freight. They got insolvent before building the CL160, but to me, it seems due to mismanagement and too optimistic planning. However, they build a 1:8 prototype "Joey" and a 75 tons balloon. What's left is the biggest self-supporting hall on earth, which now houses a vacation resort: tropical island. $\endgroup$ – sweber Dec 11 '14 at 19:47
  • $\begingroup$ @sweber they are currently offering baloon cranes for construction cargolifter.com/company $\endgroup$ – Anixx Apr 12 '15 at 7:50
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In the time of the zeppelin, long range travel was for the wealthy and going across the ocean was an adventure in and of itself. People didn't care that much about speed because the only other option was a ship that took weeks.

For cargo, the container ship is much more economical simply because it can take so much more in one go.

The Emma Maersk container ship can take up to 11000 twenty foot containers around the Eurasian continent. She roundtrips between Rotterdam and Hong Kong at a max speed of 47 km/h.

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    $\begingroup$ As a point of comparison, it would take roughly 1000 airships the size of the Graf Zeppelin II to carry as much cargo as the Emma Maersk. $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 25 '14 at 1:00
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    $\begingroup$ How can u use container ship to deliver load into desert or mountains? $\endgroup$ – Anixx Apr 12 '15 at 7:43
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    $\begingroup$ @Anixx Deliver the cargo by ship to the nearest port, then rail or road to said desert or mountain. Safer and vastly more economical than using airships. If you really need your cargo there in a hurry, build an improvised runway and use STOL/terrain suitable cargo aircraft. $\endgroup$ – Mark Micallef Apr 12 '15 at 23:41
  • $\begingroup$ It's also worth mentioning that airships have more problems with high altitudes than other types of aircraft due to the expansion of the lighter than air lift gas (typically helium) in their bladders, and the cost of said lift gas which needs to be vented. $\endgroup$ – Mark Micallef Apr 12 '15 at 23:43
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First let's compare some numbers. Hindenburg-class airships were huge, but only took 90 passengers plus 10 tonnes of additional cargo and cruised at maximum speed of 70 knots. You can put that much load in 737 that can cruise some 450 knots.

If you have something large, heavy and expensive so transport time is important, you can always charter an An-124 that can take up to 150 tonnes or even An-225 that already carried 189 tonnes (it could probably take more though it would need many refuelling stops then). They can also cruise 450 knots, though they are likely to need some refuelling stops with cargo near maximum load. Things like drilling/mining machinery can easily make up the cost of transport in couple of days. And An-124 is capable of landing on unpaved runways, so it can be used for transport to less developed areas.

On the other hand if you have a lot of something, big container ship takes hundred thousand tonnes (the already mentioned Emma Mærsk has payload capacity 154 000 t) and cruises 20-25 knots. That's not that much slower than the airship and it can take almost four orders of magnitude more cargo.

The Hindenburg-class airships were filled with cheap but flammable hydrogen. But after the Hindenburg disaster that is no longer acceptable and any new airship would have to be filled with expensive helium (in fact Hindenburg was originally designed to use helium, but at the time it was only available in the USA and there was embargo for export to Germany).

And even with helium safety record of airships was never particularly good. They fly low and slow which means they are much affected by the weather and they are sensitive to pressure and temperature changes and heating by the Sun, which makes them difficult to handle even in good conditions.

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  • $\begingroup$ Both the LZ 129 Hindenburg and the LZ 130 were designed for helium, but an American embargo forced the Zeppelin company to go back to hydrogen. And I am unaware that a 737 adds full-size beds and even a grand piano to the frills on board. We must be flying on different airlines. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Nov 24 '14 at 22:51
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf: The information I found regarding hydrogen is somewhat conflicting. Some sources say it was the embargo that forced them to hydrogen, other say it was simply the cost and the fact that they didn't have any incident with hydrogen before the Hindenburg disaster. It's not even consistent across the Wikipedia articles. As for frills, that's not much relevant to comparing the payload capacity, which is still similar. The airship provided a lot of luxury, but the trans-atlantic trip also took 2-3 days (depending on wind) instead of 8 hours in a jet. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 24 '14 at 23:03
  • $\begingroup$ My thinking is that the only real market for airships would be tourism (or long endurance operations such as military or comm relays). $\endgroup$ – Matthew Peters Nov 25 '14 at 1:53
  • $\begingroup$ @MatthewPeters: The only somewhat successful new airship project seems to be Zeppelin NT. They are much smaller than the large pre-war passenger airships, 5 were built so far and there don't seem to be that much interest. The one that made sight-seeing flights in bay area ceased operations after some 5 years. Some are still operating sight-seeing flights somewhere in Germany, but I don't know whether it's really profitable or just advertising of the ships. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 25 '14 at 13:26
  • $\begingroup$ The LZ 128 was designed for hydrogen, but never built after the R 101 disaster. Instead, the larger LZ 129 and LZ 130 were built to have the same lift with helium as the smaller LZ 128 with hydrogen gas. Maybe the Americans now feel sorry for their jingoistic embargo and want to shift the blame for an accident that really did not need to happen. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Nov 25 '14 at 15:58
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On the subject of "port calls" to unimproved areas:

I don't know what sort of effect modern technologies (computer autopilots, vectored-thrust engines) would have, but ground handling of Hindenburg-class airships in the 1930s was extremely labor-intensive. Landing the Hindenburg or Graf Zeppelin required a crew of several hundred to guide it to a mooring mast, and even after mooring, the airship was still somewhat "in flight", requiring a skeleton crew to maintain balance and prevent an incident like this.

An airship can't just "set down" anywhere. At a bare minimum, you need a mooring mast to keep it from blowing away, and a cleared area around that mast large enough for the airship to swing around with the wind. For something the size of the Hindenburg, that's a circle a half-kilometer across. The proposals for using airships for heavy-cargo delivery to remote areas presume that a ground crew is able to reach the area in advance to prepare for the landing.

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    $\begingroup$ Absolutely right, and if the payload is heavy, things will become more complicated still. Now the airship has to take up ballast as it is unloading the payload. Water or sand must be plentiful at the remote drop point. It is always funny to watch how in the movies people hop off a ballon, and the balloon just stays on the ground. Won't happen in real life. $\endgroup$ – Peter Kämpf Dec 2 '14 at 10:52
  • $\begingroup$ You bring up some great points. I am not a balloonist at all but am just curious... The challenges here do not seem too difficult to overcome. Perhaps this is another question but could an airship use anchors similar to waterbourne-ships? Obviously, they would operate in a different technical manner, but if you could have two (1 aft, 1 stern) wouldnt that provide enough pressure to keep the ship steady? $\endgroup$ – Matthew Peters Dec 2 '14 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterKämpf: Well, with underslung cargo the airship could descend until the cargo touches down, then descend more until the ropes are not tensed and now the ropes can be untied and the airship is not loaded. And it should be possible by inflating the air ballonets and compressing or releasing some lifting gas. Maintaining the ship in position so it does not drag the cargo along the ground would still be pretty complicated. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 2 '14 at 19:33
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    $\begingroup$ @MatthewPeters: No, it couldn't. The anchor line can only bear load along the line. So to resist wind/current moving the ship sideways, it has to also apply some downward force to the ship. If a waterbourne surface ship is pulled down a bit, it's buoyancy increases significantly, so even strong force won't sink it. But there is no similar effect for airship, so it would descent readily until a strong gust of wind would slam it to the ground. Note that submerged submarine would have the same problem; anchors only work well for surface vessels. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Dec 2 '14 at 19:41
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For cargo, they're a non-starter. They have much lower capacity than ships and presumably aren't any faster. We already have huge amounts of infrastructure for the shipping industry and would need to build it all again for airships.

Maybe they'd work for tourism. You'd imagine that somebody would already be doing it if there were money in it but, of course, somebody has to be first.

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    $\begingroup$ there was a company called Airship Ventures that offered this in the Bay Area up until a few years ago: sfgate.com/business/article/… They cited the major reason for closing was rising helium prices $\endgroup$ – Stanley Nov 25 '14 at 20:18
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I'd say Airships are not popular because they are highly dangerous in rough weather, many losses and casualties resulted from an Airship caught by an Storm. Many variations about Airship shape exist, including recent versions airfoiled as a lifting fuselage, and making use of aerodinamically generated lift for staying airborne. The Airship concept has periodical remakes, but as of today, with little success. Attached images from a 1904 Airship project by an spanish artillery officer, Manuel Rivera-Sempere

M Rivera Airship rear view

M Rivera airship flight operation

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Firstly, the drag on an airship is very large, considering its large volume.

Secondly, they are slow and most of the volume is taken up by air/gases like helium etc.

Thirdly, they are much slower than other modes of air transport.

However, an interesting project under development is the Aeroscraft, which is an airship.

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Currently a major problem is that the amount of helium on Earth is limited. This lead to the sharp rise of helium prices and it is expected to rise further.

As to use other gases, hydrogen is known to be dangerous and explosion-suspectible. It is also difficult to contain because it leaks envelope of any material due to the small size of its molecules.

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Has anyone mentioned the large ground crews required in launching and docking an aircraft? When labor was plentiful and cheap, this wasn't a problem.

Remember, the Hindenburg fire caused many casualties, most of them among the ground crew.

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    $\begingroup$ Where do you get the Hindenburg casualties from? Wikipedia only lists one ground crew fatality, as opposed to 13 passengers and 22 air crew. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 6 '15 at 0:35

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