After floating its Zeppelin over the Bay Area for four years, Airship Ventures announced Thursday that it has grounded the airship and is issuing refunds to passengers. A lack of corporate sponsorship and high helium prices are to blame, company officials said.
"It is frustrating because we were kind of hitting our stride," said Airship Ventures CEO Brian Hall. "We need a long term sponsor to make it all work."
Unless an investor steps forward with $5 million to $6 million, the Zeppelin Eureka will soon be dissembled and sent back to Friedrichshafen, Germany, where it was manufactured by Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik GmbH an "inelegant end" to what has been a big journey, Hall said.
Hall says there is "a window of a week or two" in which a "white knight" CEO could come forth and take on a sponsorship of the airship for about the same cost as a super bowl commercial. In exchange the company could advertise on the side of the airship for a whole year.
Housed in Moffett Field's Hangar Two, the airship gave tours of the Bay Area, Wine Country and Southern California, able to hover in place for hours or cruise a bit slower than highway traffic. Passengers paid between $375 to $950 to sit in the 12-person gondola with panoramic views from wrap-around windows. Dubbed "Eureka" after its arrival, the Zeppelin NT saw 20,000 passengers over four years, even flying all the way across the country in 2011.
"We launched it at the beginning of the recession," Hall said. "I've seen a recession before but boy, this one's just been lingering."
The ship is one of two like it in the world, the other being in Germany. A third that had been operating in Japan but faced similar challenges - and was based away from populated areas, Hall said. Hall wonders if Eureka might have fared better if based near San Francisco at Treasure Island, but that would have also been more expensive, and less convenient for the Silicon Valley companies that used the airship for employee retreats,
Hall said the company had a goal of eventually buying two more Zeppelins costing over $15 million each. "Our business goal was to be operating three of them," Hall said. "That's when the economics starts really tipping in your favor." He said more revenue could be raised with the efficiency of sharing staff and infrastructure among three ships. Hall recalls having to turn down sponsorship offers because "we only had one" airship and it's advertising space was already sold.
Another problem was that helium the gas which keeps the airship aloft at one point "increased tenfold" since operations began, due to a worldwide shortage. "Imagine if the price of gas went from
$5 to $50 a gallon," Hall said.
Zeppelin Eureka first arrived at Moffett in October of 2008. The company says it was the first "large-scale" passenger airship operation in the U.S. since the golden era of airships in the 1930s ended with the 1937 crash of the Hindenburg in New Jersey. With non-flammable helium gas and sophisticated computer controls, Eureka boasted a "perfect" safety record, the company says.
On its maiden voyage, Eureka was shipped across the Atlantic and flown to Moffett from Texas, passing the Point Sur crash site of the U.S.S. Macon, the massive 1930s Navy airship that Moffett Field's Hangar One was built for. While not as large as the 784 foot Macon, the 246-foot Eureka is longer than a Boeing 747 jumbo jet and 50 feet longer than the balloon-like Goodyear blimp.
Much of the cost of the business is meeting the airship's unique needs. "Imagine you had the only car in the U.S. and now you want to bring it to L,A,," Hall said. "You have to bring all your spare parts with you. You can't pull into a gas station, there is no gas station." With the airship "we have to take all of our infrastructure with us." Though there are some efficiencies, like getting many times the fuel mileage of a helicopter.
Zeppelin Eureka had become a common sight in the region, floating overhead with advertisement for such companies as Farmers Insurance and 23 and Me. It was used to provide aerial coverage for large events, including the Mavericks Surf Contest and the Rose Bowl, and was even used as a platform for skydiving on a few occasions.
It also aided in a long list of scientific research projects, such as collecting data on gases in the atmosphere for NASA and helping SETI conduct research in the Bay's salt ponds on "extremophiles" - tiny organisms that live in extreme environments.
"We will demonstrate that the airship's flight characteristics not only make it a great way to see the world, but also to understand it better," said Airship Ventures co-owner Alexandra Hall in 2009.
The first female airship pilots trained with Eureka, including the first American female pilot.
There's a still chance the Zeppelin will fly again over the Bay Area.
"I think we're better than a cat, we've had more than nine lives," Hall said. "It's not over until its over, but its very close."