At a time when the government wants to eliminate the Essential Air Services program, Zunum Aero has an idea that might increase GA airport traffic by leaps and bounds. Specifically, hybrid-electric aircraft that will provide cheap short-range flights. Billing itself as a “pioneer in electric aviation,” the Seattle-based company recently announced backing from Boeing’s HorizonX innovation cell and JetBlue Technology Ventures, declaring that both companies “believe that regional travel is ripe for transformation.”
Zunum’s goal is to use its “innovative class of hybrid-electric aircraft” in creating a “regional electric air network,” so that travelers can consider short flights between regional airports as a real alternative to driving and high-speed rail. The aircraft would seat between 10 and 50 passengers, and by the early 2020s they’d be able to cover 700 miles. If successful, Zunum hopes to increase that range to 1,000 miles by 2030.
“The shift of the industry to large aircraft and long ranges driven by gas turbines has concentrated almost all air traffic to just two percent of our airports, creating a massive transport gap over regional distances where there is no high-speed alternative. As a result, door-to-door times for most journeys are no better than they were 50 years ago,” said Zunum Aero CEO and founder Ashish Kumar. “Hybrid propulsion is an industry-changing solution, enabling mid-sized aircraft on regional routes to have better cost efficiencies than airliners.”
The other obvious benefits of electric aircraft would be quieter flights and reduced emissions. Zunum estimates 80 percent lower emissions (with an ultimate goal of zero emissions) and a 75 percent decline in noise, which means that flights could operate at all hours. Still, reduced airfare prices will scratch most consumers’ itches, and Zunum believes it can decrease travel time by as much as 80 percent, while costing 40 to 80 percent below current prices.
These ideas are what led Boeing and JetBlue to invest in Zunum, as the former believes hybrid-electric aircraft can “transform the market for small, short-haul aircraft that can use smaller regional airports,” while the latter is focused on promoting “new technologies that look to change the game.”