Airline passengers around the world could begin flying on hybrid or even electric aircraft in 2022, soaring high in the sky on thousands of short-haul regional routes that aren’t currently economically feasible with traditional planes, and saving time while they do it.
Today, Zunum Aero, a Seattle-based startup backed by Boeing and JetBlue Technology Ventures, announced plans for its first hybrid-electric plane, a 12-seater capable of flying up to 700 miles at a competitive price of about 8 cents per seat mile, or $250 an hour. The company hopes it can disrupt the regional airline industry, which it says is worth $1 trillion worldwide.
Zunum emerged from stealth last April, promising hybrid or electric air travel on planes with between 10 and 50 seats by the early 2020s. Now, the company–which has also opened offices in Chicago as a way to bring on new talent–says it will start with the 12-seater, a plane that could be reconfigured with six seats as a business jet, or with nine business-class seats.
It hopes to producer bigger planes that can fly up to 1,000 miles down the line.
The company says its planes, which are designed to last at least 30 years, are future-proofed, capable of incorporating improved battery and propulsion technology without needing any of the updates to external flight surfaces that would require new regulatory certifications and substantial delays in resuming operations.
Those improvements may well be able to reduce the seat-mile cost of flying Zunum’s planes as power production becomes more efficient. In addition, the planes are being designed with aerodynamics that are meant to be at least 5 to 10 years ahead of what will be needed in 2022. Zunum plans to begin flight tests in 2019.
Beyond promoting the idea of hybrid or electric travel, the company believes the key to unlocking the potential of the short-haul aviation sector lies in the nation’s 5,000 regional airports, and thousands more such facilities around the world. These underutilized airstrips could do a better job than the 136 U.S. hub airports that currently serve the vast majority of commercial air traffic to get millions of passengers closer to their destinations.
Ironically, the opportunity Zunum hopes to exploit is due to the significant success of major airlines, which, thanks to powerful jet engines and large long-range aircraft, have shifted the dynamics of air travel to a small network of major hubs that today handle more than 90% of the America’s air passenger traffic. And while it’s relatively easy and efficient to travel between the world’s hub destinations, Zunum is hoping to exploit what CEO Ashish Kumar calls a “regional transport gap” that currently makes it slow and expensive to travel distances between 100 and 1,000 miles.
Zunum is promising that its planes will make regional travel faster by allowing people to fly between small airports that currently most airlines can’t service. As an example, its planes could make it possible to get door-to-door from San Jose, California to Los Angeles in 2 hours, 15 minutes by flying from one of four different small Bay Area airfields to one of four L.A.-area airstrips. To make the trip today—adding up transportation to the airport, checking in, waiting, flying, departure, and transportation to your final destination—would take about 4 hours, 40 minutes, Zunum says.
Similarly, Zunum claims its planes could shorten the travel time for a trip between Boston and Washington, D.C., from 4 hours, 50 minutes to 2 hours, 30 minutes.
In each case, the shorter times are because regional airports are often easier to get to, and require little waiting, and because of reduced security screening procedures for flights on aircraft with less than 60 seats.
Traditional gas-turbine-powered airplanes are capable of traveling at costs similar to Zunum’s 8 cents per seat mile, Kumar says, but only when they can cruise for long distances. On short flights, he explained, such planes are flying mostly off-cruise, which is more fuel-intensive.
Zunum says its planes can take off on runways with a minimum of 2,200 feet, which also opens up many additional airports for potential short-haul routes.