June 2, 2016

Public Policy and Airships

Towards a National Airship Transport Policy

Transportation is a shared responsibility between the private and public sectors. For example, with the exception of the railways, governments provide the fixed infrastructure which is open to multiple users, while the private sector provides the mobile assets, labour and some buildings for their exclusive use. More generally regarding public sector responsibility, transportation policy is important because the private and public sectors work together to jointly deliver passenger and freight services. The regulations, actions or neglect of governments have a direct impact on the business sector’s risk and investment decisions in transportation provision. Ultimately, this affects the services available to consumers and the competitiveness of the economy. For example, air transportation is a national responsibility. The federal government establishes the regulatory framework and provides the necessary public infrastructure to serve aviation.

In the above perspective of mutual responsibilities between the public and the private sectors, we have identified the regulatory and infrastructure needs of the Canadian airship industry that depend on government policy. It should be understood that these needs are real and pressing given that the industry is waiting government action to start with business.

Airship Regulatory Framework

Aviation is an intensively regulated industry. The government requires the aviation industry to retain licensed pilots and mechanics whose licenses have ratings to work on specific aircraft. Qualified personnel are required to sign-off on and record maintenance and repairs. Without the appropriate records and inspections commercial aircraft cannot be registered and flown legally. Similarly, new aircraft must meet stringent engineering and safety requirements to obtain a certificate of airworthiness. Finally, the aircraft has to operate from an aerodrome that may have a multitude of security and air navigation regulations. New aircraft can only comply with the regulations if they are clearly established and the avenues exist to obtain qualified personnel.

Canada has almost no history of airships. As a result, the airship regulations that are contained in the Canadian Air Regulations (CARs) are adapted from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to the degree that they exist at all. It is important to establish the missing gaps in regulatory system that impede the manufacture and operation of transport airships in Canada and ultimately services available to consumers and the competitiveness of the economy.

  • Airworthiness: The regulatory authorities are supportive of aerospace technological development. The FAA criteria that were developed for Lockheed-Martins hybrid airship have been the subject of discussion in Canada. Airship investors will not find readymade criteria for the development of large transport airships, but there appears to be a willingness to work with the industry.
  • Pilot certification: The CARs have no regulatory system to enable the training of airship pilots in Canada, or the requirements for instructors to certify airship pilots. Transport Canada has misdirected airship companies to obtain a hot air balloon pilot’s license that is not valid for powered flight. Although exemptions can be granted to enable commercial airships to fly in Canada, this does not lead to the development of a pilot training syllabus or teaching institutions. This presents a serious gap and given the lag time required for a new pilot to complete an as yet unspecified requirement will create unnecessary delays.
  • Aircraft Mechanical Engineers (AME): Every airship must be able to pass an annual inspection for safety and compliance. Canada has no certified airship mechanics. Existing AMEs may be able qualify for an “airship rating” on their license, but Canada has no regulations to administer this certification. A new airship operator in Canada must have a mechanism by which they can obtain employees qualified to work on airship envelope and other unique components that are specific to airships.


Airship Infrastructure

A fundamental role of the public sector is to provide the multi-user infrastructure, e.g. ports. An advantage of airships is that they do not require as much infrastructure as other modes of transport. However, they still require some multi-user facilities that are not economic to be provided by individual users.

Another reason that government provides infrastructure is to encourage an efficient and competitive transportation service. If only one or two operators emerge with their own infrastructure they can obtain a non-competitive hold on the market and block innovation as well as extract excess profits from shippers.

  • Aerodromes: It is unclear whether airships should operate from certified public aerodromes with other commercial aircraft, or the aerodromes for airships should be private and separated from fixed-wing aircraft. It is certainly possible to operate airships and fixed-wing aircraft together as it is done with advertising blimps, but they are so few in number that they do not interfere with other scheduled services.
  • Airdocks: Hangars for airships should not be confused with airplane hangars, and therefore are referred to as Airdocks. Airdocks are more expensive, because of their size, and consequently a greater barrier to entry (anti-competitive), if only privately-owned airdocks are available. Moreover, an airdock does not function like an airplane hangar. An airship only enters an airdock for major repairs or an annual inspection. The balance of the time, it is working carrying loads. In this respect an airdock for airships is similar in function to a drydock for ships. Each airdock could serve roughly 25 airships annually. Public airdocks will encourage competition, increase available low cost services and meet our national innovation agenda in modernizing our transportation sector beyond standard practices.
  • Research and Education: In an emerging airship industry both go hand in hand and should be supported concurrently much like the aeronautics sector at one time. Airships require some generic research across the innovation chain and education that are difficult to provide currently by the public sector. An example is the development of facilities for cold weather testing. A centre that can be accessible by all airship companies will promote innovation and safety. Canada has no post-secondary institutions with the capability to educate airship engineers and technicians. While this does not require new institutions to be founded, new research programs and academic specialties need to be established within existing academic units.