Lyft’s guide to the transportation revolution

The fall and rise of the airship

Carl Franzen - Feb 13, 2023
An airship flying above Paris, with the Eiffel Tower dominating the skyline.

If you find yourself watching the skies these days — and who could blame you, what with the spy balloons and mysterious flying craft that seem to be popping up everywhere — don't be surprised if you see another unexpected object up there. The airship, a form of aircraft that fell out of favor in the early 20th century, is back on the ascent.

Also known as dirigibles, from the French word for “directable,” these lighter-than-air crafts improved upon hot-air balloons by giving pilots the ability to steer — instead of floating at the mercy of the wind. At their peak, airships made hundreds of transatlantic flights, carrying tens of thousands of passengers. At least until 1937, when the fatal explosion of the Hindenburg was caught on newsreel, forever linking airships with catastrophic infernos.

The upsides and downsides of dirigibles

Today, though, the dirigible might be poised for a renaissance. Airships’ gas-filled compartments generate their lift, and ​​airship-makers contend this means their crafts need less fossil fuel to operate: 80 to 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a jet with an equivalent payload.

Of course, airships have a downside. Dirigibles move far slower than planes, with modern designs promising less than 100 miles per hour compared with commercial planes that travel five times as fast. 

Still, airship outfits are betting there will be enough customers for their services, from adventurous passengers seeking novel travel experiences to firms delivering cargo and equipment to tough-to-reach areas.

Meet the airship revivalists

Pathfinder 1
Pathfinder 1 begins floating inside the hangar at Moffett Field for the first time on its custom mobile mooring mast. (Photo courtesy of LTA Research)

Most of the new airship-makers have unfamiliar names, but some are connected to prominent individuals and governments. Google co-founder Sergey Brin, for example, works with and reportedly funds Lighter-Than-Air (LTA) Research. With facilities in Google’s backyard of Mountain View, California, and a historic former Goodyear blimp airdock in Akron, Ohio, LTA is constructing several versions of its airship, Pathfinder. The first model is near completion, measuring 394 feet long; a second, larger one will be 606 feet. 

LTA’s Pathfinders are designed to deliver cargo for humanitarian aid. Big, heavy stuff like water, rice, and tents (and wireless internet, too). LTA will use less-flammable helium as its primary lifting agent but is looking at hydrogen to power the electric engines that will drive the airship forward.

A photo of a BASI prototype airship. (Photo courtesy of ​​Ross Prentice, BASI)
A photo of a BASI prototype airship. (Photo courtesy of Ross Prentice, BASI)

Another firm targeting airships for aid — and a whole lot more — is the U.K.-based Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV). Founded in 2007 with an initial focus on research and military applications, it sees a broader market in cargo and wireless internet. It’s not pure pie in the sky. HAV has test-flown several versions of its airships, including one called the Airlander 10. But HAV has suffered some nonfatal crashes and is currently seeking additional funding to get its next-generation aircraft production-ready. 

Of course, not every airship outfit has such earnest ambitions. Stockholm-based OceanSky is betting that airships will fill a new niche, providing unique, unprecedented luxury travel experiences. The company wants to use HAV Airlanders for a luxury aerial cruise service to the North Pole, “between 2024 and 2026,” with tickets starting at 200,000 USD for a two-person cabin. (You can already reserve a spot.)

OceanSky Airlander 10
An illustrated rendering of an OceanSky-branded Airlander 10 airship flying to the North Pole. (Photo courtesy of OceanSky)

Clearly, reviving airships isn’t easy. Even the well-funded firms are likely years away from establishing regular commercial service. But one thing we can say is that the plucky inflatable aircraft is far from grounded for good. And given the environmental advantages it can deliver, its future looks loftier than it has in nearly a century.

Carl Franzen is Rev’s contributing editor.

The content provided in this article is for informational purposes only. Unless otherwise stated, Lyft is not affiliated with any businesses or organizations mentioned in the article.