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You know all about cruising on the high seas. River cruising, too. Maybe you’ve even heard of cruising over land.
But a cruise ship that flies through the skies? That’s the stuff of history, right?
Sweden-based OceanSky Cruises is betting millions that pretty soon, travellers will be lining up for the chance to take a leisurely journey through the air—where being in transit is the point, rather than a hurdle between where you are and where you want to go.
OceanSky’s first “air cruise” departure is currently slated for February 2024. Up to 16 passengers, plus eight crew members (including four pilots, a chef, and the expedition leader), will make their way from Longyearbyen in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard to the North Pole in a 136-foot, 2,100-square-foot cabin attached to a massive, helium-filled air chamber. (That cabin area is slightly larger than two Boeing 737 Max jets set side by side.)
The airship will cruise for 15 hours at an altitude low enough for wildlife spotting (about 1,000 feet.) It will then land for a six-hour sojourn, during which guests will either embark upon a hike or go cross-country skiing, take a dip in Arctic waters, and enjoy a catered lunch in the snow before making the 15-hour return journey.
Led by polar explorer and environmental activist Robert Swan, the 36-hour round trip will offer some of the same rewards as luxury train or ocean cruising: a relaxing ride in which passengers have their own amenity-filled cabins while sharing plush common areas. On longer itineraries, one could travel without the tedium of having to unpack at each stop. Also in the works is a six-day Southern Africa itinerary starting in Windhoek, Namibia, or Livingstone, Zambia, then touching down on Namibia’s Skeleton Coast, Botswana’s Okavango Delta, and Victoria Falls on the Zambia-Zimbabwe border before circling back.
That is, if negotiations go to plan.
Chief Executive Officer Carl-Oscar Lawaczeck co-founded OceanSky with three partners in 2014 after years of research into sustainable transport. He says the company is in talks with UK-based manufacturer Hybrid Air Vehicles Ltd. to use its Airlander 10 airships, which were developed for the US Army as surveillance tools. Air Nostrum, a regional partner carrier for Iberia, announced in June that it had signed an agreement to be the launch airline for 100-seat versions of the craft, aiming to have them in service from 2026.
Renderings on OceanSky’s website show a vessel far from being military Spartan or regional jet utilitarian. The white, elliptical shaped Airlander 10 has been reconfigured into a fusion of sightseeing vehicle and floating luxury hotel, with eight en-suite double cabins (each with panoramic windows), a restaurant, lounge, and bar area. The large common area has panoramic windows and a special sightseeing room with glass on both sides and underneath.
Providing the lift is a 1.6 million cubic feet helium-filled air chamber that’s about the length of a football field. Four propellers driven by diesel engines can move the ship as fast as 130 kph—although OceanSky will cruise at roughly 22 mph, similar to the speed of a modern cruise ship. Vertical takeoff and landing capabilities could open up access to such remote locations as the North Pole and Botswana’s Makgadikgadi Pan for exploration where airstrips are impossible. The Airlander 10 can land on any flat surface, including the sea.
Lawaczeck promises an on-board experience even more glamorous than those in the era of the zeppelin. The rigid airships built by German General Ferdinand von Zeppelin dominated long-distance flight from 1910 until the well-documented Hindenburg disaster on May 6, 1937, in which a craft caught fire and crashed, killing 35 out of 97 people aboard. After that, airships faded from widespread use and the airplane quickly took over.
But unlike the ill-fated LZ 129 Hindenburg, which used flammable hydrogen, these modern dirigibles use helium, an inert gas that won’t catch fire and is spread across multiple internal chambers. The vessels’ semi-rigid hulls are made from three layers of fabric—including Vectran, a material five times stronger than steel—and land at “bicycle speed” of around 20 mph, which is safer than an airplane’s typical landing speed of about 170 mph.
OceanSky is banking on that sense of safety, as well as a sense of adventure, to get the vessels—and the company—off the ground.
Investment by adventure
In addition to private investments, Lawaczeck says he is raising additional funds through ticket pre-sales. Buyers of the first 50 cabins for the North Pole expeditions, spread out across nine journeys, will have the opportunity to become OceanSky shareholders. These "Pioneer" tickets start at 2 million kroner (R3.6 million) per cabin and go as high as 12 million kroner for a cabin on the maiden voyage. (The earlier you fly, the higher the price.)
For a non-refundable ticket fully paid at R3.6 million, a buyer would receive 333 shares for a the price of approximately R10 600 per Class B share. “In the end, we expect you to make a hefty profit,” Lawaczeck says.
Less-bullish souls can purchase the very same ticket as an “Adventurer,” putting up a 5% deposit to secure the cabin, 45% to be paid nine months before departure, and the final 50% paid six months prior to departure. Unlike “Pioneers,” these tickets are to be refunded in full if the flight is not delivered by the end of 2026, a protection guaranteed by the Swedish government authority Kammarkollegiet.
Lawaczeck says the ultimate goal of OceanSky is to bring airships into mass market air travel.
“Their challenge will be to find an airship for the service,” says aviation historian Dan Grossman on contemplating OceanSky’s luxury travel itineraries. So far, Airlander 10 test flights have not been ringing successes. Its second flight crashed in 2016. In its sixth, in 2017, the ship broke from its moorings and deflated; that prototype was retired in 2019.
Hybrid Air Vehicles CEO Tom Grundy says he expects a new Airlander 10 to be built by 2026. The company has since received a £1 million (R20.4 million) grant from the UK Aerospace Research and Technology Program to develop a 500-kilowatt electric propulsor to replace its fuel-burning engines.
Bill McGee, senior fellow for aviation at the American Economic Liberties Project, calls OceanSky’s ambitions “intriguing,” but questions whether the economics make sense.
Lawaczeck responds that in OceanSky’s simulations, airships have a lower unit cost per passenger, per mile than do airplanes—as an ecological bonus, about 80% fewer carbon emissions, too. “Fuel and energy cost less. The wear and tear on airships is less due to its slowness. What’s expensive is the staff,” says Lawaczeck. “And in the beginning, we will get punished because the market sees risk.”
But, he continues, “we’ve generated a demand for airships. Tesla introduced the Roadster to break into the industry. It’s the same with our concept. In a few months, we will have a waiting list.”
France-based Flying Whales has yet to go beyond computer-generated prototypes to build an actual airship. And LTA Research, backed by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, states on its website that its mission is to “provide humanitarian aid in places where conventional transportation can't reach, such as in the aftermath of a disaster.” Asked whether it might partner with OceanSky on high-end expeditions for the well-heeled, LTA declined to comment.