Boeing Co. and JetBlue Airways Corp. are investing in a startup developing an electric-powered aircraft with the potential to transform short-haul flights.
The three-year-old Zunum is designing aircraft that will hold 10 to 50 passengers and be powered with a hybrid propulsion system—an electric battery with a fuel-powered generator to kick in when necessary for longer range flights—and, presumably, to quell the fears of more skeptical fliers. Think a supercharged Prius in the sky. Besides being quieter and better for the environment (the company projects 80 percent lower emissions, with a goal of zero emissions as the technology improves), Zunum’s planes hope to break into the market by showcasing how cheap a flight can be when fueling isn’t a concern. In fact, according to a press release shared with Condé Nast Traveler, the cost for airlines could be decreased so drastically that ticket prices would see a 40 to 80 percent drop.
Zunum Aero hopes that the smaller airplanes, operating in less-crowded airports, without the astronomical fares of a private jet, will lower TSA wait times and open up more convenient airports. In fact, the company predicts that its technology could decrease door-to-door travel time on “busy corridors” by 40 percent and by as much as 80 percent at less-trafficked airports. An example given on the company’s website paints a pretty picture: Step out the door of your San Jose home at 7 a.m. and be out on the slopes in Tahoe by 8:40 a.m., all for $100 round-trip.
The company is aiming to get the first planes operating 700-mile routes (say, Portland, Oregonto San Francisco) at some point in the early 2020s, with testing likely to begin before that. By 2030, it hopes to have 50-passenger planes in the sky with a 1,000-mile range. While Boeing’s investment is an endorsement of sorts for Zunum Aero’s patented technology, JetBlue’s is perhaps even more important, as it shows a willingness on the part of at least one airline to replace current fleets of regional jets with something more efficient and versatile.
With potential policy changes on the horizon under a new administration, however, Zunum may have more to be concerned about than just funding (the company did not disclose the size of the recent investments) and buy-in from airlines.