Zeppelins: a low-impact alternative to flying

These airships cause less environmental damage than planes. But journeys would test passengers' patience.

Flying from New York to London could result in 90 percent fewer carbon emissions than on conventional flights if passengers would just lighten up and allow a few extra hours – maybe 40 or so – to reach their destination.

That's the futuristic promise of traveling by zeppelin – a rigid, helium-filled airship whose internal support structure provides more stability than its balloonlike cousin, the blimp.

These days, as many as 12 tourists at a time take one- and two-hour scenic zeppelin flights from the Friedrichshafen, Germany, birthplace of the zeppelin. Passengers, who reportedly hear only a "soft whirring noise," ride in a gondola appended to the bottom of an inflated chamber that reaches 57 feet high and stretches 246 feet long.

But environmentalists envision wider commercial use one day for travelers who value light-impact travel and like to savor their journeys.

"I'm certainly not thinking it's something that's going to happen tomorrow. But if we get serious about carbon emissions, and people are desperate to still be able to travel, using zeppelins could be something that we do. They're actually quite safe," says Elle Morrell, director of a green lifestyle program at the Australian Conservation Foundation.

Zeppelins have been floating above the earth since 1900, three years before the Wright Brothers took the first airplane flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C. The invention of Count Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, these airships served missions in wartime before falling out of favor during the rise of jet travel.

Since 1997, a new breed of zeppelin from Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei, a company whose roots trace to Count Zeppelin, has been taking to the skies with swiveling propellers that allow for hovering in place and flying backward. The Zeppelin NT 07 can climb to 8,500 feet, cover 560 miles and stay aloft for 24 hours.

With those specs in mind, Deutsche Zeppelin-Reederei has its sights on noncommercial markets, such as scientific mission trips, or as a control center for rescue missions or surveillance operations. But a zeppelin circled the globe back in 1929. Perhaps in a new age of ecoconsciousness, it can deliver surprises again.

From our archives:

The USS Macon was one of four zeppelins the Navy flew in the 1920s and '30s. It crashed in 1935, and its offshore wreck was explored by archaeologists in 2006.

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