Hybrid-electric airplane startup claims it can cut airfares by 80%

Alistair Charlton
Zunum Aero renders

A hybrid-electric aeroplane startup with financial backing from Boeing is gearing up to take us into a new 'golden age' of aviation, cutting travel times by 40% and fares by up to 80%.

Coming out of stealth mode on 5 April, Washington-based Zunum Aero believes it can transform the regional and short-haul airline industries by building small electric planes to shuttle passengers between local airports, avoiding international hubs and their high landing fees and passenger queuing times.

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Zunum Aero, which also has backing from US airline JetBlue, hopes to have created an electric-hybrid airplane for carrying 10 passengers up to 700 miles by the early 2020s, before expanding to produce 50-seat aircraft with a range of over 1,000 miles by 2030.

As well as dramatically reducing running costs by replacing jet fuel with electricity, the company hopes to decrease door-to-door travel time by flying between some of the US's 5,000 "underutilised" regional airports.

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The company says its plans will "pave the way to a golden era of fast and affordable electric air travel."

Chief executive and founder Ashish Kumar said: "The shift of the industry to large aircraft and long ranges driven by gas turbines has concentrated almost all air traffic to just 2% 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."

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Kumar describes hybrid propulsion as "an industry-changing solution, enabling mid-size aircraft on regional routes to have better cost efficiencies than airliners."

In a press release, the company explained: "Designing aircraft for walk-on, walk-off travel from nearby airports addresses the major pain points of modern air transit while filling a vast regional transport gap.

"For example, passengers can expect to travel from regional airports in the Boston area to Washington, DC for half the fare and in half the time it takes today door-to-door. For those on the West Coast, Silicon Valley to the LA area drops to two and a half hours door-to-door, from over five hours today."

Ticket prices to fall by 80%

Zunum Aero, which has been operating below the radar for three years, believes it can reduce the door-to-door journey time in "busy corridors" by 40%, and by as much as 80% in areas with less air traffic. Lower operating costs could see fares fall by between 40% and 80%, the company claims, while emissions will tumble by 80% initially, then "drop to zero over time as battery densities improve". The company also promises a 75% drop in local noise pollution, allowing for open-all-hours access at smaller airports.

"Boeing HorizonX is investing in Zunum because we feel its technology development is leading this emerging and exciting hybrid-electric market space. This technology and customer approach has the potential to transform the market for small, short-haul aircraft that can use smaller regional airports," said Steve Nordlund, Vice President, Boeing HorizonX.

"At JetBlue Technology Ventures, our goal is to be part of a disruptive force rather than the one being disrupted and we seek new technologies that look to change the game," said Bonny Simi, President, JetBlue Technology Ventures. "As a company that is also deeply committed to innovation in sustainable travel, we believe that Zunum and its quiet, environmentally-friendly aircraft will light up a vast network of underutilised airports and reinvent regional travel."

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