Published in December 2015 issue

The Rhine shimmers in blue and green as we hover low over Basel, staring down at the cathedral in the town’s historic center and at the green hills in the distance. We’re in a glorious anachronism: a Zeppelin, the only one operated by an airline, the Swiss holiday carrier Edelweiss (WK). It also happens to be the largest airworthy airship in the world.

By Andreas Spaeth

Edelweiss, a Swiss-affiliate and member of the Lufthansa Group, commissioned the Zeppelin to celebrate its 20th anniversary. For six months, from May to August 2015, Edelweiss held six boarding events for sightseeing flights in six locations in Switzerland, between Zürich and Interlaken, giving passengers the opportunity to see the country from a unique aerial vantage point.

The aircraft, known as a Zeppelin NT (for ‘New Technology’), was built in Friedrichshafen, Germany, by a company descended from the conglomerate that built the original German  Zeppelins—the flying cigars developed by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin in the 1930s. The company has built seven of these massive craft, each 75 meters (82 yards) long, two meters (6.6 feet) longer than an Airbus A380. They are shorter, however, than the old-time Zeppelins, like the LZ 129 Hindenburg of 1936, which measured almost 247 meters (270 yards). Then, up to 72 passengers could travel in luxury from Europe to America in about 59 hours. Today, 12 or, in enhanced cabins, up to 15 passengers can be accommodated in the Zeppelin NT.

To mark its 20th anniversary, Edelweiss Air chartered the Zeppelin NT registered D-LZZF (SN03), which was built in 2003, the second airship of the series to be constructed in Friedrichshafen. For the summer, the mighty hull— the helium-filled gas-cell that contains the structure of this semi-rigid airship—wore decals in Edelweiss colors.

It was imaginative of the Swiss airline to become the first carrier to operate an airship. “To make the necessary arrangements, get permissions and solve logistical challenges was very complex and demanded a lot of dedication,” says Edelweiss CEO Bernd Bauer.

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A summer afternoon at the St. Jakob sports complex in Basel. This is where the Edelweiss Zeppelin is stationed during its one-week appearance in Basel. Starting in the morning, it will make 16 rounds today, soaring above Basel and its surroundings at low altitude, with 12 passengers on board each time, each one lucky to have scored a ticket.

The weather is perfect: cloudless skies and almost no wind, just a very light breeze, and a temperature of 28°C (82°F).

After checking-in in a tent prominently displaying the current Herpa models of the Edelweiss Zeppelin, passengers go into the tent next door for a safety briefing. Like students in school, they sit and hear how the procedures of boarding and deboarding are handled—with movements, they learn, that are almost choreographed.

After the briefing, there is no more time to lose. The Zeppelin is already coming in to land on the sports field. Now, it is paramount to stand in line, two by two, as just instructed, near the touchdown point. The four men of the ground crew grab the ropes dangling from the nose of the airship, to hold it firmly on the ground. There is not much noise; a helicopter or a jet would have been much louder.

The boarding procedure is sophisticated: For every two passengers exiting the four-step gangway, two new ones quickly enter the gondola. This is done to avoid too much fluctuation in weight. Within a few seconds, all 12 newcomers are on board and buckled in. On the left-hand cockpit seat is flight Operations Manager Fritz Günther, acting as Pilot. The ground crew lets go of the ropes and Günther applies thrust. Both lateral engines have their tilting propellers turned 90° upward. At the rear is a push propeller as well as a smaller steering one.

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“We have to ascend with our engine power of three times 147 kW. The dynamic lift of our helium-filled hull accounts for only 10 to 15% of the total lift,” Günther says.

With the joystick, almost like in a modern Airbus cockpit, he initiates the climb to an altitude of 300 meters (984 feet).

“Close to the ground, the Zeppelin flies more like a helicopter and is very agile. In the air, it handles more like an airplane,” he explains.

Quickly, the desired altitude is reached. A flight attendant clad in the Edelweiss uniform greets the new passengers, who are now free to unfasten their seatbelts and move around the cabin. But most are so fascinated that they don’t even leave their seats, but rather look down on their city from the big panoramic windows. Almost silently, the Zeppelin hovers above the city. In the midday heat, a bit of thermal air current has developed, moving the airship slightly back and forth.

Inside the gondola, several windows can be opened, but, due to the very slow speed of about 70 kph (45mph), there is almost no slipstream to be felt. There is a lot of demand to sit on the comfortable bench in the back of the cabin, in front of the huge, curved panoramic window.

The ship is fueled with 1,000 liters (265USg) of Avgas, the same type of kerosene used in general aviation, and, because fuel burn is very low in cruise, can remain airborne for extremely long periods of time. “We have power settings that are extremely economical, as our hull also creates lift,” Günther explains. Officially, the maximum flight duration is 35 hours, although the record actually flown is 25 hours and 20 minutes. “But, on landing, we still had fuel reserves for 70 more hours,” another of the only nine certified Zeppelin Pilots worldwide recalls.

Such marathons are not flown in passenger service, but for scientific missions, for example taking measurements of aerosol particles and trace gases in the lowest layers of the atmosphere in Finland. Comparatively, these sightseeing flights in Basel are more routine jobs for the Pilots, who fly the same route up to 16 times a day. At Friedrichshafen, by contrast, the two Zeppelins based there fly 17 different sightseeing routes, remaining airborne for about 1,400 hours a year. A total of 16,000 to 18,000 passengers a year thus enjoy this totally fascinating, almost out-of-this-world flying experience.

In Basel, however, the sightseeing flight is already over after not much more than half an hour. Everyone on board would be willing to pay quite a bit more to go back up straight away with the next flight.