The characters in Philip Pullman’s fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials explored the Arctic Circle by airship. Soon, well-heeled travellers will do the same.
Almost a century after Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth completed the first successful trip to the North Pole aboard dirigible The Norge in May 1926, in 2023/24 experiential travel outfit OceanSky Cruises will offer a 36-hour round trip to the Earth’s northernmost region by a blimp billed as “the superyacht of the sky”, offering eight cabins with queen-sized beds and ensuite bathrooms.
Fittingly, the itinerary departs Svalbard — where the mast for The Norge still stands — and will cruise over Norway’s wilds and Arctic icebergs as passengers use the midnight sun to spot polar bears, breaching whales and rare wildlife below.
OceanSky Cruises CEO and co-founder Carl-Oscar Lawaczeck says it’s the first of many itineraries he will launch to explore remote, hard-to-access places.
“To utilise airships to the maximum, you want [to fly to] an area that doesn’t have so much infrastructure, like the Amazon or Siberia, where it’s hard to get very deep into the wilderness,” he says, adding that he might add in options for passengers to stay overnight at a camp at the Pole or on a deserted island, or be dropped off for an overland dog sledding or 4WD experience to a pick-up point.
Lawaczeck is in talks with several manufacturers, but says the 98-metre-long Airlander 10 — which UK-based manufacturer Hybrid Air Vehicles (HAV) says is the largest aircraft in the world — is currently his preferred aircraft.
Flying aboard an airship is basically bringing your luxury hotel with you.”Carl-Oscar Lawaczeck
Airships like Airlander share a number of qualities suited to luxury travel.
The obvious one is their relatively high degree of safety. As these aircraft fly slowly — the Airlander 10 maxes out at 111 kilometres per hour — the risks associated with crashes are minimal. Unlike the Hindenburg, which was filled with explosive hydrogen, today’s airships are filled with inert helium, which can be used to extinguish fires. Although they look like balloons, they don’t burst: even in the unlikely event the hull did puncture, its low pressure differential means that the helium gas would escape so slowly that the airship has time to cruise back to base to get patched up.
Airships also have a much lower carbon footprint, offering a 75 percent reduction in emissions compared to more traditional aircraft. A blimp’s comical proportions — the Airlander’s voluptuous posterior earned it the nickname The Flying Bum — are indicative of an efficient design where up to 80 percent of the aircraft’s weight is countered by the buoyancy of helium, requiring less fuel to stay airborne. HAV engineers are already working on producing a fully electric, zero-emission version of the Airlander for 2030.
As airships can take off and land from virtually any flat surface in any direction, there’s no need to clear land to construct runways or airports, another plus for the planet. Whereas cruise ships have to break apart ice floes to reach the North Pole, an airship will glide quietly overhead, leaving the landscape untouched. Depending on the location of the home base (they don’t even need a hangar), dirigibles can go anywhere in the world. Airlander 10, for instance, can travel 4,000 nautical miles and remain airborne for five days.
As you might expect, these qualities mean that airships are gaining traction in other sectors. The ability to fly long ranges with a high payload capacity has defence and security intelligence applications, such as to transport goods, aid and personnel to war-torn or disaster-impacted regions lacking infrastructure.
Lockheed Martin’s P-791 prototype, designed for military use, took its first flight in 2006 and will soon go into production and FAA type-testing. The non-rigid Aeros 40D Sky Dragon airship, built by US-based Worldwide Aeros Corp, is already being used by commercial and military organisations.
Dirigibles are also useful for commercial logistics, like for hauling mining or logging gear plus personnel straight to site without the need to clear land and create access roads. French company Flying Whales, which, ironically, is making a sleek, torpedo-shaped airship, is pursuing the cargo market.
For Lawaczeck — a career pilot with experience in cargo operations, VIP corporate airlines and legacy passenger airlines — experiential travel is the way to market. Down the line, he says, airships will also be a great proposition for transit passengers who want to use the journey time getting from A to B productively.
Instead of counting down the minutes until you can unfold yourself from an airline seat, you’ll be able to use an airships’ longer flight time and more expansive cabin productively, doing yoga, working, enjoying a dinner or sleeping so you arrive at your destination refreshed. Carriers who regularly ground aircraft overnight due to a lack of passengers willing to forgo a night’s shuteye can instead keep their fleet in the air and make money, in turn helping to keep ticket costs manageable. On some routes, the fact that an airship can cut down the commute by dropping you right in the city or a remote destination might mean the total journey time might beat that of flying commercial, when traffic to the airport, negotiating security lines and weather-related delays add up.
For OceanSky Cruises’ cabin concept, designers at British creative consultancy Design Q have leveraged their experience in automotive and bizjet design and engineering to rewrite the book on comfortable accommodations.
As well as eight expansive cabins — potentially with soaking tubs and gas fireplaces — the module’s floorplan offers multiple common areas, including a “horizon to horizon” infinity lounge for drinking, dining and watching the world glide by through huge 2.5 metre by 1.5 metre windows. Seating will be dynamic so spaces can take on different moods as the day moves from breakfast through lunch, to cocktail hour and an Arctic cuisine-themed dinner. Seats can even move outboard so, much like a cruise ship, staff can create a dance floor come disco hour.
“It’s about theatre. We’re trying to make the journey slightly less predictable,” says Lawaczeck.
And dance moves notwithstanding, you’ll be able to keep your martini in your glass: airships are low vibration, with a greatly reduced effect of turbulence. They’re also very quiet, making it perfect for getting close to wildlife on an aerial safari — imagine following the great wildebeest migration as two million animals crash through the Serengeti bush below.
OceanSky Cruises is already inviting travellers to reserve their 900,000 SEK ($141,000), two-person cabin with 5 percent down. And even with the date of departure to be confirmed, Lawaczeck says the response to the invite-only Arctic trip has been “above expectation”.
He’s already laying the groundwork for a Tropic of Capricorn product that will take in the majestic 1,708-metre-wide Victoria Falls along the Zambezi River in Zambia, Namibia’s striking cheetah-patrolled red sand dunes, and Botswana’s vast, biodiverse Okavango Delta.
And if you want to take an airship wine tasting through Champagne rather than take a helicopter or Ferrari from Paris, that’s an option.
“Flying aboard an airship is basically bringing your luxury hotel with you,” says Lawaczeck.