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Firm lifts off with airship

Cruises are being offered over central Switzerland. Skycruise

The Swiss company, Skycruise, may not yet be competition for the budget airlines, but it is hoping to take off by offering flights on airships.

This content was published on June 4, 2005 - 16:53

It has become the first company in 100 years to receive a licence to operate an airship passenger service in Switzerland.

"Getting there is half the fun," enthuses Skycruise founder and director Christian Schulthess, describing his company’s philosophy.

"We’ve crossed the finish line and then some," he told swissinfo after getting the green light from the aviation authorities to operate flights this summer with a modern, high-tech version of the Zeppelin.

Getting permission to operate commercial flights has been no easy task.

In 2002 Skycruise was granted a special licence to offer sightseeing flights over the grounds of the Swiss national exhibition sites that year.

But commercial operations later ran into problems over the fact that the balloon was registered in the United States rather than in Switzerland.

Earlier this year a solution was found after the firm reached an agreement with the Federal Office for Civil Aviation. Skycruise now has permission to operate flights throughout the summer.

Based in central Switzerland, Schulthess and his team are offering slow-moving (45km cruising speed), low altitude flights over Lake Lucerne and the surrounding area.

"It’s a leisurely way to fly and the cabin has large windows which passengers can open and wave to people on the ground, and see them waving back," he said.

Aerial surveillance

It also got plenty of free publicity last summer when it was used by the authorities in Athens to provide aerial surveillance of the Olympic Games.

Schulthess came up with the airship idea when he was a commercial airline pilot in the 1980s, but it has taken two decades to realise his dream.

"The complex regulations in Switzerland make it difficult for anyone wishing to enter the airship business," he said.

As an example, he would like to use abandoned army barracks at Skycruise’s site in Buochs as his airship terminal, but the law prevents him from taking them over, even if they are destined to be torn down.

Instead, a large tent serves to process passengers.

"Air traffic today is clearly designed to transport people from A to B," said Daniel Göring of the Federal Office for Civil Aviation.

High safety standards

"But round trips with an airship are an attraction in themselves," he added.

An airship must meet the same stringent safety and maintenance prerequisites as every other aircraft.

Skycruise’s licence expires at the end of October, but Göring says the granting of only temporary approval is standard procedure in the industry, enabling the authorities to monitor the company’s operations.

If this summer’s flights run smoothly, nothing will stand in the way of an open-ended licence.

Schulthess envisages using even larger airships if his business takes off. "I’m convinced there’s a market for flights lasting several days, and of course, people would eat and sleep on board."

He thinks the sky is the limit as far as the price of such unique flights is concerned.

Prices for a round-trip flight start at SFr380 ($295).

swissinfo, Renat Künzi

Key facts

Huge airships were all the rage at the start of last century, and even crossed the Atlantic.
Their era ended on May 6, 1937 with the explosion of the German "Hindenburg" and the deaths of 36 people.
The live report of the tragedy made radio history.
Airships have now made a comeback being used for passenger flights, surveillance or in advertising.

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