Airships are commonly compared to airplanes, probably because both are aerial vehicles. However, that’s where the similarities end. Airships are better compared to trains from a passenger’s perspective. We can, in a future of sustainable travel, consider airships as a travel option similar to the way we use trains.
Trains have a very low carbon footprint because of the efficient technology of using steel wheels on steel rails which minimizes friction. Trains are also easily engineered using electricity instead of fossil fuels, if investing in the infrastructure. However, the efficiency is key to sustainability, and not the propellent (ref “Why efficiency matters and 0-emission doesn’t” – not yet written).
There is no need for large investments in infrastructure that cuts through pristine nature. An airship can land on a green field outside Frankfurt one day, and an icy lake in Finland the next
Airships are hyper-efficient, meaning they consume very low amounts of energy, because they float in the air through the helium lifting gas inside, just like a boat floats in the water. Airplanes, and helicopters, need to create lift through their wings (or rotating wings) to keep aloft which consumes massive amounts of energy. An airship’s only energy consumption is to overcome the friction of the air that brushes over their sleek aerodynamic hull. Testimonials from the golden era of airships, from 1920s and 30s, feature calm and smooth descriptions of airship travel experiences, as quiet giants soaring through the sky in majestic speed, which gives the potential to create an on-board experience of true elegance and comfort.
Trains’ strongest quality is the sheer amount of weight it can carry. Airships’ strongest point is the amount of volume it can offer. That makes them ideal for different types of cargo. For passenger travel, they are quite similar in terms of speed, footprint (energy consumption), passenger comfort, unit cost and even a similarity in terms of visibility through huge windows. Nevertheless, airships offer one more feature that makes them highly interesting – flexibility.
There is no need for large investments in infrastructure that cuts through pristine nature. An airship can land on a green field outside Frankfurt one day, and an icy lake in Finland the next. All that is needed, in addition to an open area or field, is the infrastructure required for passenger security and customs (when required). This doesn’t have to mean terminals and buildings; it might instead mean mobile units that can be deployed where required. Airships can supply humanity with a clean and quiet “train in the sky”. On top of that; low level atmosphere is essentially empty while the rest of our current modes of transportation has reached their infrastructure capacity limitation.
What if we can deploy an “aerial railway system of the sky”, literally overnight, in an area that suffers from sub developed transportation network, imagine what that would do to the economic prosperity in the region. We would instantly create an opportunity for less developed areas, to leapfrog into a buzzing economy of trade and commerce without leaving a footprint.