Is Lighter than Air the Future of Experiential Aviation?

For passengers, the onboard experience will be a game-changer.

If all goes according to plan, the first airships will fly to the North Pole in spring 2024, almost a century after Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth carried out the first confirmed successful polar trip in 1926.

OceanSky Cruises is offering day-and-a-half-long round trips from Svalbard, Norway, to fly over Arctic icebergs and spot polar bears, breaching whales, and rare wildlife. Carl-Oscar Lawaczeck, a pilot and CEO and co-founder of the experiential travel company, says it’ll be the first of many itineraries to hard-to-reach places. He expects flights to begin in 2023 or 2024.

OceanSky is already inviting interested “pioneers” to secure a two-person cabin for 5 percent down on the $100,000 ticket price, but there’s a lot to be determined, including which airship they’ll be boarding. Several companies are exploring lighter-than-air technology, although none have released a production model; OceanSky claims to be the only company to have flown a full-scale prototype, the 320-foot-long Airlander 10, manufactured by Hybrid Air Vehicles.

Because they’re filled with inert helium, not the explosive hydrogen of yore, and travel at low speeds, maxing out at around 70 miles an hour, they’re relatively safe. Because they can take off and land from virtually any flat surface, moreover, there’s no need for runways or airports, meaning they can go anywhere in the world within range. 

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Airframers are set to deliver all the globe-shrinking pace of the iconic Concorde, but will have to meet today’s exacting environmental standards.

Airlander 10, for instance, can remain airborne for five days and travel 4,000 nautical miles. Powered by four energy-efficient, jet-fuel-burning engines, it offers 75 percent savings on emissions compared with traditional aircraft (and engineers are already working on fully electric versions for 2030). Plus, it’s quiet, making it perfect for pickups in residential areas or wildlife spotting on aerial safaris.

For passengers, the onboard experience will be a game-changer. An airship’s colossal dimensions for relatively few passengers—OceanSky’s projections call for a cabin that’s wider than that of the Airbus A320 for 18 guests—mean that designers can rewrite the book on accommodations. Creative consultancy Design Q’s Airlander 10 concept features expansive suites with queen-size beds, private bathrooms, and floor-to-ceiling windows in the standard cabin, plus several common areas for drinking, dining, and watching the world glide by. And as airships cruise at low altitude—anywhere from just above the ground to 10,000 feet—cabins don’t need to be pressurized, meaning passengers can better savor food and drink, breathe easier, and sleep more deeply. 

“Flying aboard an airship is basically bringing your luxury hotel with you,” says Lawaczeck.