Goodyear has been reinstating its ties with ZLT Zeppelin. Will it give our airborne correspondent a lift?
I was in Canterbury when I saw it. My friends and I stopped in our tracks, joining scores of people looking up at the huge blue-and-yellow vessel drifting through the skies. The winged-foot logo of the US rubber and tyres company was visible, bisecting the word Goodyear.
The Goodyear Blimp is among the most distinctive pieces of outdoor advertising that money can buy: a giant airborne publicity-generating spectacle that has been seen by millions. Its presence during the past 100 years or so means that, “When you think of tyres, you think of Goodyear,” says Daniel Smith, Goodyear’s airship PR specialist.
In the past 10 years the brand has doubled down on its commitment, swapping its three-strong US fleet for a trio of newer, more resilient models made by the historic German manufacturer Zeppelin. And in 2020, Goodyear reinstated its European airship presence after a 20-year hiatus, launching the craft I spotted above Canterbury. I didn’t expect that I’d soon be climbing aboard.
“This experience is unique,” says Eckhard Breuer, ceo of Friedrichshafen-based Zeppelin, raising his voice above the whirr of the vehicle’s propellers. We are flying just below cloud-level over the orderly German fields and matchbox houses that border the Bodensee. Our pilot sits in the cockpit before a colourful medley of navigational displays, flashing lights, buttons and gas-valve levers that seem to scream, “Pull me!” I must resist.
Since the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, when a luxury airship crash-landed in flames, the vessels have been out of vogue. Though safety measures have vastly improved, there are fewer than 10 airships in the world that are ready to fly. Goodyear’s fleet of four is quite the haul.
“If you wanted to buy one tomorrow, you’d have to bring about €15m,” says Breuer. That’s about the price of a mid-range private jet. But additional expenses abound. Zeppelin’s model of airship is longer than an Airbus a380, wider than
three blue whales and as tall as four double-decker buses stacked on top of one another. And the helium used in airships today, although it’s obviously preferable to the highly flammable hydrogen that was once the norm, costs as much as €222,000 to fill one ship. When touring, Zeppelin ships can require as many as 17 people in their crew. And there are fewer people trained to fly an airship than there are astronauts. Today’s captain, Fritz Günther, explains that these vehicles handle completely differently to ordinary aircraft. For him, though, an airship veteran of more than 20 years, that’s no bad thing. “If the wind is calm, it’s like you’re riding on silk,” he says.
Goodyear is Zeppelin’s biggest client by far. Besides manufacturing the US brand’s aircraft, there are three other ways that the German company remains profitable. “First, I see this as a high-end tourist experience,” says Breuer. Zeppelin’s airships also make money as airborne camera platforms – fans of American football will be familiar with the Blimp’s live coverage of the Super Bowl – and they are used for research purposes.
Günther carefully guides us to the ground. It’s a short walk to the terminal building next to Zeppelin’s offices, which has an on-site steakhouse. After a drink or two over dinner, conversation loosens up. Why did Breuer get involved in a sector with so many challenges? “My wife says that Zeppelin is the Eiffel Tower of Friedrichshafen; it’s a monument,” he says. “When I was offered the job, I considered the proposition carefully. Eventually I asked myself: who wouldn’t want to be a part of this?”
Visit monocle.com/film to watch our documentary about Zeppelin and the Goodyear Blimp.