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High flying demand or bust?

By Hpanchal on June 30, 2011


Experts weigh in on the airships sector

Call them blimps, dirigibles or zeppelins. Regardless of the verbiage, one thing’s for certain: Airships are a sky staple. With early models dating back to the late 1600s, these aircraft precede traditional planes by centuries.

However, their design and function have certainly evolved over the years. Whether utilized for marketing purposes or government intelligence, these devices have been heralded for their wide range of applications. One capacity, in particular, that has been garnering significant attention of late is freight transportation.

Enabling manufacturers and freight forwarders to transport cargo, such as humanitarian supplies, to hard-to-reach destinations, airships have been lauded as the wave of the future by some aviation experts. After all, they offer a trifecta of benefits: increased capacity, a reduced carbon footprint and the ability to land virtually anywhere.

But will the cargo airship market ever get completely off the ground? Will the industry experience another defeat on par with Germany’s CargoLifter failure? And will hybrid airships — which combine the elements of both lighter-than-air (LTA) and heavier-than-air (HTA) aircraft and offer an increased payload capacity — live up to their hype or go bust?

The results are in — and they’re mixed.

The voices of opposition

To say that the industry took a hit when cargo airship manufacturer CargoLifter announced insolvency in 2002 would be an understatement. A more accurate assertion? It was a complete setback. When CargoLifter came on the scene in the late ’90s, the company aspired to create a CL 160 airship capable of carrying 160 tonnes. But that goal never fully transpired.

Faced with a number of challenges, including limited funding and the destruction of an airship prototype, CargoLifter was forced to throw in the proverbial towel. Nevertheless, former company shareholders continue to invest in the LTA market, via the CL CargoLifter GmbH & Co. KG company. Still, to some in the aviation and logistics field, CargoLifter’s collapse serves as a cautionary tale.

Jose Holguin-Veras, PhD, a transportation-engineering expert at the Troy, N.Y.-based Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, fits into this category. Not only does he call cargo airships “costly and capacity strained,” he also questions their logistical merit. Explaining that transferring goods from one mode to another — truck to airship or vice versa — accounts for 12 percent to 20 percent of freight transportation costs, Holguin-Veras says airships can’t carry enough cargo to mitigate this expense.

“The only way for the mode to succeed is if you have low operating costs, and I don’t think airships are low,” he says. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t see this changing anytime soon. “I don’t think airship manufactures have a good hold on the freight market,” Holguin-Veras asserts. “Speed and direct cost per mile are what’s important. And a mode that is slow, like airships, could only compete it if has very high carrying capacity, like 1,000 to 2,000 tonnes, not 60 tonnes like many are [transporting].”

He’s especially anti-airship when it comes to moving low-value goods. After all, he maintains, airships just can’t compete with other transportation methods in this category. “Can you transport a low-value commodity like corn via an airship that will be competitive with trucks and seafreight?” Holguin-Veras asks. “I don’t think so.”

Then there’s the problem of perishables. Many industry experts argue that cargo airships are simply too slow to transport time-sensitive cargo, such as flowers and certain fruits. Traditional freighters and ships are a much better option, they assert.

Holguin-Veras agrees. To him, airship manufacturers should leave freight transportation to traditional aircraft and trucks and focus on tourism and other passenger-oriented transportation. Although he does acknowledge one advantage of cargo airships — carrying freight to remote destinations — even this isn’t enough for him to endorse the market. “Helicopters could transfer it, too,” he says. “I just don’t see the benefit of [cargo airships].”

Tapping into airships’ potential

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