Airships: Exploring New Possibilities For An Old Industry

Arnold & Porter


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In 1935, Alexander Klemin, a lawyer and former Dean of the NYU Guggenheim School of Aeronautics, wrote in the Air Law Review that the "American airship history has been a series of disasters followed by Congressional investigation."
United States Transport
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"Shortly thereafter they took off. This felt strange, lofting up over the bay, bouncing a little on the wind, not like a jet, not like a helicopter. Strange but interesting."

— Ministry of the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson, 2022

In 1935, Alexander Klemin, a lawyer and former Dean of the NYU Guggenheim School of Aeronautics, wrote in the Air Law Review that the "American airship history has been a series of disasters followed by Congressional investigation." Two years before this statement, the USS Akron crashed off of the coast of New Jersey — resulting in the largest loss of life of any airship disaster. Two years after that statement, it wasn't an American airship — but a German one — that had the most memorable disaster, when the Hindenburg crashed near Lakehurst, New Jersey. These disasters cemented a view that airships were dangerous. Before airships fell out of use, however, they had been seen as a luxurious and efficient mode of transportation. Today, there is a world-wide renaissance in the airship industry, featuring start-up companies re-commercializing this technology, driven by concerns with the air industry's impact on climate and the unique use cases for the airship.

The term "airship" is defined by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as "an engine-driven, lighter than air vehicle that can be controlled in flight." Congress has not addressed airships in recent FAA reauthorizations. The word "airship" was not mentioned in the 2012, 2018, or the 2024 FAA reauthorizations.

Airships, as with other emerging aircraft like electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft, are currently regulated under 14 CFR Part 21, which details three separate certifications (type, product, and airworthiness) needed for a vehicle to be operational. Briefly, "type" certification is where the FAA approves of the design of the aircraft; "production" certification is where the FAA approves that the manufacturer can duplicate an FAA-approved design and that the manufacturer "can produce a product or article that conforms to its approved design"; and "airworthiness" certification is necessary in order for the operation of the aircraft.

Under 14 CFR Part 21, airships are considered to be a "special class" of aircraft "for which airworthiness standards have not been issued under" this part of the code, but the FAA will apply "portions of those other airworthiness requirements" to airships. The most recent FAA Advisory Circular to specifically focus on type certification for airships was released (and is still active) on September 25, 1992. Since that time, the technology in this field has significantly changed, leaving FAA's current regulations lagging behind, particularly in the areas of fuel sources to power the airship; new regulations concerning the docking, undocking, and storage of the vehicles; the types of gas that will be used to allow the vehicle to float (hydrogen or helium); and the need for droppable ballast.

So why is there this renewed interest in an old technology?

Decarbonizing the aviation industry is a key pillar of the green transition and the industry has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Airships, with their low emissions and limited environmental impact, can play a significant role in this transition. According to the International Energy Agency, aviation accounted for 3.5% of all energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2022. On October 4, 2021 at the 77th Annual General Meeting for the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a resolution was passed to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. IATA membership includes significant players in the airline industry, including Alaska, American, Delta, JetBlue, and United Airlines. IATA says they will meet their 2050 net-zero emissions goal "through a combination of maximum elimination of emissions at source and the use of approved offsetting and carbon capture technologies." In 2022, the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) 41st session adopted long-term goals to achieve net-zero emissions in the international aviation industry by 2050. To achieve these goals, ICAO is exploring different measures to reduce emissions, including "aircraft technology improvements, operational improvements, sustainable aviation fuels, and market-based measures."

Airship companies are taking different approaches to this issue. Recently, Lighter than Air Research (LTA), an airship startup based out of Mountain View, California, unveiled their new prototype airship, called Pathfinder 1, which is the largest aircraft to launch in over a century. LTA's mission is to build, "[n]ext-generation airships to advance humanitarian aid and shape a cleaner world." LTA's focus is on zero-emissions in the humanitarian space, with their stated goal to go "where zero-emission airships can support and even speed up disaster response and relief efforts. If runways, roads, and ports are damaged, LTA's airships can still deliver what communities need." Flying Whales is a French-based company that is focused on reducing the impact of cargo transportation. Their mission is to support economic development of certain landlocked areas and to reduce the overall climate impact of cargo transit. The first airship they are developing will be able to carry 60 tons of cargo, about the same as an A-330 or Boeing 767. Hybrid Air Vehicles is a company that was founded in 2007 to develop a hybrid aircraft that keeps the "long-term future of our planet in mind" and uses both "lighter than air" and traditional aviation technologies. Their aircrafts, the Airlander 10 and Airlander 50, offer the ability for multi-day surveillance trips, and with the Airlander 50, the capability of carrying up to a 50 ton payload. AT2 is another company that is interested in developing a hybrid aircraft. The company, backed by Lockheed Martin and based in Santa Clarita, California, will develop their Z1 Hybrid Airship, which is an "airship solution to support commercial and humanitarian applications around the world" that has been "optimized for zero-emissions flight using hydrogen fuel."

Congress has taken notice of developments in the industry. In 2015, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-CA) and former Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) launched an airship cargo caucus. After the launch of the caucus, Rep. Sherman said, "They have enormous potential to enable economic development opportunities and accelerate export logistics, expand U.S. capabilities in disaster relief response, and drive greenhouse gas reductions in aviation." In addition, governments will continue to decarbonize the aviation industry, including airships. It will be important for these companies to proactively develop relationships with policymakers in this space to demonstrate the value and opportunities provided by airships.

Dean Klemin, the author mentioned at the beginning of this Advisory, ended his article by stating, "Napoleon said that everything could be foreseen except the unforeseen. In the rapidly changing and developing field of aerial navigation, it is impossible to predict to what type of craft superiority of usefulness in either naval or civil work will go." As we go back to the future, airships may re-emerge as a serious contender, providing valuable contributions across complex environments. This is an exciting field where policymakers and industry leaders will need to work together to advance new regulations. Companies that take a proactive legislative and public policy approach will benefit significantly.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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