Could small ‘Tesla of the air’ electric planes and $25 tickets be the future of short trips?
Hybrid-electric plane maker Zunum Aero has some heavyweight investor partners, including Boeing HorizonX and JetBlue Technology Ventures
Imagine taking your next trip of a couple hundred kilometres. New York City to Boston, for example. Or Houston to Dallas. Tampa to Miami.
The obvious choice now might be to drive. But what if you could show up at an airport at one of those cities, bypass security checkpoints, board a small hybrid-electric plane with luggage in hand, and be on the ground at your destination in about an hour - all for US$25 each way?
A company called Zunum Aero hopes to make that a reality, so that future travellers who normally take a car, bus or train for regional trips won’t think twice about flying. The Washington state-based start-up says that since 2013, it has been developing a fleet of hybrid-electric planes that would make those kinds of inexpensive, short-haul flights possible.
The company has some heavyweight investor partners, including Boeing HorizonX and JetBlue Technology Ventures, subsidiaries of their respective companies. It also faces a number of competitors and obstacles, particularly battery limitations. But if successful, it could significantly change regional air travel, where options have shrivelled and costs have crept up in recent decades.
“Think of it as Tesla of the air,” said Bonny Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures. “[Or] think of it as an electric bus in the air.”
Zunum Aero emerged from “stealth mode” on Wednesday to announce its ambitious goals: to be flying routes of up to 1,100km (think Atlanta to Washington, D.C.) by the mid-2020s and then routes of up to 1,600km (think Los Angeles to Seattle) by 2030.
The start-up also laid out an array of promises: door-to-door travel times cut in half. Lower operating costs. Airfares that would be 40 to 80 per cent lower. All on quiet hybrid aircraft that would produce 80 per cent less emissions. Indeed, part of the company name was inspired by “tzunuum,” the Mayan word for the hummingbird, for the bird’s speed and efficiency.
“To be perfectly honest, we’ve been wanting to tell the story for four years,” Zunum Aero chief executive Ashish Kumar said.
“What we’ve been building towards is really exciting and we believe fundamentally is going to change the shape of regional aviation.”
Kumar thinks operating costs for the company’s hybrid-electric planes could be 40 to 80 per cent lower than for conventional aircraft. A small range-extending generator would be integrated into early planes, kicking in on longer flights where battery power isn’t enough. The eventual goal would be for battery technology to become advanced enough to have planes relying entirely on electricity, eliminating fuel costs altogether, Kumar said.
There are several reasons that people rarely choose to fly for short regional trips. Flying often means allotting extra time for getting to the airport, going through security and then boarding. Also, the airline industry’s shift to larger planes and big-city hubs created what Kumar calls a “regional transport gap”.
Flights from midsize cities are now often routed through hubs, meaning door-to-door times for those trips are no better than they were 50 years ago, Kumar said. And air options for smaller communities have been dwindling or disappearing, he added. Today, 97 per cent of US air traffic comes from 2 per cent of the more than 5,000 airports in the country, according to the 2014-2034 FAA Aerospace Forecast.
About 95 per cent of trips under 700km are taken by car, according to the US Department of Transportation’s National Household Travel Survey. For trips between 800 and 1200 km , about 61 per cent of travellers drive and 34 per cent fly. For trips between 1200 and 1,600 km, a little more than half of travellers fly and 42 per cent drive.
Kumar and his team think this is where electric-hybrid planes can step in. Whereas a Boeing 737 today seats anywhere from 85 to more than 200 passengers, a Zunum plane would have from 10 to 50 seats. Because the Transportation Security Administration imposes fewer regulations on smaller aircraft, those passengers would likely be able to skip long security lines. Removing luggage check-in options also would save on time on the ground, he said. The resulting trip would feel more like a cross between private corporate air travel and hopping on a bus.
Still, the company is not without its competitors and detractors. This year, a Massachusetts-based start-up called Wright Electric announced similar plans to roll out “zero-emissions electric airliners designed to save money and our planet” within a decade. The Y Combinator-backed company, however, told BBC News that it was relying on continued advances in battery technology.
Watch: the Airbus ‘E-Fan’ hybrid electric aircraft
“The battery technology is not there yet,” Graham Warwick, technology editor of Aviation Weekly, told the BBC.
“It’s projected to come but it needs a significant improvement. Nobody thinks that is going to happen anytime soon.”
It remains too early to tell what the commercial aviation industry will look like by the mid-2020s and whether one-way fares in the $25 range would be feasible then. Even now, it is not unheard of for low-cost carriers such as Frontier or Spirit to offer double-digit airfares on domestic routes.
That hasn’t stopped others from diving into hybrid-electric aerospace projects. Airbus has also been developing its “E-Fan” hybrid electric aircraft since 2014, and in 2015 it became the first all-electric twin-engine plane to cross the English Channel. Though the “E-Fan” has only two seats, Airbus is hoping the technology will lead to a regional airliner or helicopter.
Plans for helicopter-esque electric “VTOL” (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft have also been emerging from Silicon Valley lately. The Verge’s Andrew J. Hawkins reported that Uber, Airbus, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, and Google co-founder Larry Page are all working on developing their own VTOLs.
“Because nothing says ‘I’m very rich and I hate traffic’ like a flying car project,” Hawkins wrote for the technology site.
In a statement, Boeing HorizonX said it was confident in investing in Zunum Aero “because we feel its technology development is leading this emerging and exciting hybrid-electric market space.”
Simi compared the push for hybrid-electric planes to the airline industry’s advancement from strictly propeller planes to jet aircraft.
“It’s that type of transformation,” Simi said. “We’re very excited about where this is going. It’s still very early, of course. We now have a seat at the table at what we believe is going to be an amazing change.”