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Expo.02 from on high

The airship carries up to 12 passengers at a time


Visitors with cash to spare can get a bird's-eye view of the Swiss national exhibition, Expo.02, by taking a trip in the country's first passenger airship.

For most people airships, or Zeppelins, conjure up images of the fiery death of the Hindenberg back in the 1930s.

But in recent years, blimps, as they are sometimes called, have slowly been re-appearing in Europe's skies thanks to a British company, which started building scaled-down versions for small numbers of passengers in the 1980s.

Now Skycruise Switzerland, a company that owns a British-designed Skyship 600, has launched its first passenger operations during Expo.02. The firm is hoping these flights will generate renewed interest in airships.

"Its quiet, gliding motion through the air, combined with incomparable views, make it attractive today," said Christian Schulthess, Skycruise's chief executive officer. "The airship answers a need for relaxation, experiences and a slower pace."

An expensive hour

The blimp at Expo.02 will fly at an altitude of 150 to 300 metres over Neuchâtel, Lake Murten and St Peters Island, carrying eight to 12 passengers. A 60-minute flight over the Three Lakes Region will cost at least SFr580 ($365) per person.

Schulthess admits the price is steep, but says people should look beyond the cost. "It is a chance to see the Expo not only from above, but also close-up, without any major noise or vibrations."

The trip is not exactly quiet, though. The 60-metre-long blimp is held aloft by a silent helium-filled envelope, but the two motors used to steer it produce a steady drone, which can irritate the passengers.

Skycruise is hoping that these initial flights will generate enough interest to make its airship flights into a viable business. In the future, it wants to offer professional passenger airship services all over Switzerland on a regular basis, as other companies do in the United States.

There is no guarantee of success, though. So far, the flights leaving from Neuchâtel still have plenty of seats available and passengers don't seem to be falling all over each other to get onboard.

Schulthess remains optimistic despite the lack of reservations. "I expect the flights to be 70 to 80 per cent full," he told swissinfo.

Skycruise's boss also believes that passenger airships have a future in Switzerland. "This country is made for tourism, and with our beautiful landscapes, the airship has a raison d'être."


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