Airship manufacturer Zeppelin Luftschifftechnik (ZLT) is pinning its hopes on a partnership with tyre giant Goodyear to inflate its fortunes after a flat five years.

The small German company - founded in Count Zeppelin's home town of Friedrichshafen in the 1990s to design a modern version of the early-20th-century icon - has begun shipping kits of its Zeppelin NT ("new technology") to the US company following a deal to licence-build three airships inked in 2011.

Goodyear will complete assembly of the first of the airships at its factory in Ohio by the end of the year, ready for the summer 2014 flying season. Further versions will be produced in 2014 and 2015. The Zeppelins will carry Goodyear branding and replace blimps used for promotional purposes that are coming to the end of their working life, says Thomas Brandt, chief executive of ZLT.

Brandt is confident the partnership with Goodyear will give ZLT a much-needed boost. The company has not manufactured any new airships since delivering its fourth example in 2008 to a Californian tourism operator that has since gone into liquidation, leading to ZLT taking back the airship.

However, Brandt says ZLT is close to signing an Asian customer for that airship. After that, he is confident the company - owned by automotive components firm ZF (a successor to the count's original business) and the Zeppelin Foundation - can restart production at a rate of around two airships every three years.

"Our shareholders have always taken a long view," he says. "But we feel the market is picking up again and we are more optimistic than ever with the Goodyear deal that we can exploit what is a small, niche demand for airships. Goodyear is a huge brand in the USA and it is great exposure for the unique abilities of our design. Our goal remains to produce one every 18 months."

The Goodyear airships will have a newly certificated Garmin flightdeck. Brandt says the aim now is to fit off-the-shelf avionics systems rather than source individual cockpit components from a variety of manufacturers as before. "There are some specific displays with an airship - such as helium management - but generally we want to install equipment that can be more easily maintained," he says.

ZLT's subsidiary DZR operates two Zeppelins. One is used mainly to fly around 12,000 passengers a year in 2h voyages over Lake Constance, next to ZLT's factory in Friedrichshafen. The other has been leased to a variety of organisations which have used it for climate research, surveying and leisure. In August, it will be taking tourists over Versailles, near Paris.

The 75m (246ft)-long, eight-tonne Zeppelin NT comprises an 8,430m3 (300,000ft3) helium-filled hull, held in place by a rigid inner aluminium and carbonfibre frame to which the 12-seat gondola is attached, along with rudders and three vectoring 200hp (147kW) Lycoming IO-360 piston engines. The first example flew in 2001.

Source: Flight International