AirFlair: Meet the Prius of Airplanes the Zunum Aero
by Paul Thompson
The future of regional air travel may be arriving sooner than many of us expected! Boeing and JetBlue are working with Seattle-based startup called Zunum Aero to develop a hybrid-electric jet that they plan to have in service by 2022.
Zunum is the Mayan word for Hummingbird, and Zunum’s spritely 12-seat regional jet will have a 700-mile range, making it useful for quick flights between Los Angeles to Silicon Valley, or NYC to Boston or DC. The electric capabilities of the plane will create lower operating costs for airlines, so they could potentially offer more-frequent flights, if they opt to buy a bunch of planes to meet those requirements. There are no major airlines currently operating 12-seat aircraft, but this plane could be a true game-changer if it comes to market. If Zunum’s plane does indeed provide the low operating cost as promised, we could see airlines operating a fleet of these planes, departing several times each hour, based on demand.
Bonny Simi, President of Zunum partner JetBlue Technology Ventures said, ”Just like the auto industry is being transformed by electric cars, the regional airline industry is ripe for disruption by electric propulsion. After monitoring the space for a while, we believe that Zunum is well ahead of others in efforts to transform the industry, and we are excited to have a seat at the table.”
Zunum plans to utilize low-traffic secondary airports, which larger jets can’t fly into, because of short runways and/or noise restrictions. Passengers wouldn’t have to deal with the traffic or congestion of large hubs, which Zunum says will cut overall travel time. The engines of this plane would operate much like the ones you find on a Toyota Prius, using a combination of jet fuel and electricity generated by onboard batteries. This pairing will greatly reduce emissions and operate with 80 percent less noise than traditional commercial jets.
The batteries that power the electric capabilities of the aircraft may cause alarm to some, as they’re slated to use lithium-ion battery packs. Lithium-ion batteries do have a history of causing problems on planes, notably Boeing’s own 787 Dreamliner. Boeing eventually overcame that fault, and the 787 is one the most successful planes Boeing has ever built. Boeing wasn’t even using Li-Ion technology to power the 787’s engines, so Zunum will have a huge burden of proof to show its engines can operate safely and as expected. You may also remember the failed Samsung Galaxy Note 7, which also used a Li-Ion battery that burst into flames so often that the FAA was prompted to ban them from all commercial flights, and led to a full recall by Samsung.
Personally, I think the goal of getting this plane into service by 2022 is much too ambitious. There are currently no commercial aircraft operating today with a propulsion system that incorporates the use of battery power. Airlines are still struggling to implement a wide use of biofuel technology. Biofuel studies for aviation applications have been going on for over a decade. There are a handful of successful biofuel applications within commercial airlines such as Alaska, KLM, and United, but biofuels have not been produced to the level at which every flight can use it instead of traditional jet fuel.
When a new technology comes along — especially in aviation — there is a mountain of flight trials and governmental certification that has to take place. Not to get political, but the current US administration doesn’t seem too interested in renewable or sustainable energy at this point, which could delay the approval process. A jet engine powered largely by batteries would be more eco-friendly, and the batteries could be swapped out and recharged once the plane lands, much like the way traditional jets undergo a refueling process. Each airport could have fully-charged batteries ready to go in order to replace the ones used during the inbound flight.
Assuming Zunum is able to successfully get this planned plane off the ground, the company doesn’t plan to stop once they have a successful 12-seat aircraft. They eventually want to upgrade to a plane that will fly at least 1,000 miles, with the capacity for up to 50 passengers.
photos by Paul Thompson
Paul Thompson is a revered aviation & travel journalist for Airways Live & The Points Guy. He is a 16-year airline industry veteran and sought after writer in the aeronautics field. Follow Paul on Twitter @flyingphotog