Zeppelin trips over Paris

Zeppelin trips over Paris

It is often said that France is not a country that spurns entrepreneurs. Connexion looks at enterprising ideas.

It is often said that France is not a country that spurns entrepreneurs. In a continuing series, however, Connexion looks at enterprising ideas that have found a way to take off - this one literally. Report by Oliver Rowland

A FIRM called Airship Paris starts test runs with a 75m-long Zeppelin around the skies of the capital this month - with a view to carrying sightseers by next July.

Airships’ heyday was more than 70 years ago - before the Hindenburg disaster, when a large one caught fire at the end of a Germany to America flight, killing 36 people. The first one flew in 1852, made by French inventor Henri Giffard, but German firm Zeppelin became synonymous with them. Airship Paris CEO Eric Lopez explains how they have made a comeback and how he got the idea for tourist trips above the capital.

Surely the fashion for airships was over by the Second World War?

Yes, it finished with the Hindenburg in 1937. At the time Zeppelin made big dirigibles [airships] that could transport fifty tons, some over 200m long; there had been round-the-world trips. But they were inflated with hydrogen, unstable and very flammable.

After the disaster, the Zeppelin Foundation in Germany raised money with a view to having airships flying again, but after the war, as the country was destroyed, there were other priorities. It participated in the reconstruction and became involved in making gearboxes and clutches, notably with the ZF group which now has a large part of this market for European-made cars. It was only in the 2000s that they started updating the concept of the old Zeppelin airships. They have reinvented the technology.

What are the differences?

It’s inflated with helium, which is completely uninflammable. It also has a cockpit with controls comparable to an Airbus - its joystick allows you to manoeuvre it just like a plane. It has 12 comfortable seats and panoramic windows. There’s no noise or vibrations because the motors are far from the cabin, attached to the sides of the rigid aluminium/ carbon frame, not to the cabin itself, which is fixed underneath. This makes it much less noisy than a plane. Also, the Zeppelin uses less power: as it is only just heavier than air the slightest upward force allows it to take off. It is powered by propellers, like helicopter ones but on a smaller scale.

What sparked your interest?

I worked in air transport in Paris, and am passionate about aviation. I met the CEO of Zeppelin at a conference by the European Space Agency and he invited me to see his airships. I found them extraordinary and I started thinking about getting them flying over Paris. I’ve worked on the project for five years now.

The airships cost €17 million... how did you raise enough funds?

It’s mainly private investors, friends of mine in fact. Once it’s been running for a few years we should be able to have support from the banks as well, or be selffinancing.

Might you have more than one airship eventually?

Yes, from 2015 we hope to have two.

When do your tests start?

At the end of September, for a month, then the airship will leave France around October 20, to be kept in a hangar in Germany for the winter. Otherwise, it will be flying from Pontoise airport, 25km north-west of Paris.

Seeing Versailles will be one of the highlights?

We will not be right over the palace, but just next to it, we will see it very well, as well as the Château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and western suburbs like Camp des Loges and the Forêt de Marly. Then the route goes to the Parc de Saint-Cloud to see all the Parisian monuments.

There will be one route but when we have more idea of demand we will decide if there should be others. There will be six to eight flights a day, perhaps with night-time flights in a few years’ time.

It will be 450 per flight - so it’s quite a luxury?

Yes, but you get an hour’s flight, and it’s much less than a helicopter and much quieter for the passengers and from the ground (you don’t hear it once it’s above 300m). Also, we will have flights starting from 200, depending on the time of day - one at 7.00 on Monday will not be the same as Saturday at 13.00 - but it’s not necessarily worse. A sunrise over Paris is nice as well.

How does it compare with a hot-air balloon ride?

In a balloon you go where the wind takes you and you’re in the open air. Here you’re in an air-conditioned cabin with toilets; there’s no comparison.

Getting permission must have been complicated?

Very, and we are still finalising the definitive route with the authorities, as we go over very populated areas. There are safety rules, and a lot of people to convince that there won’t be risks. No regulations exist for airships in France, only in the UK and Germany, so we have adapted theirs.

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