By Sebastian Modak. Photos: Courtesy Zunum Aero.
When it comes to aviation innovation, we're approaching a bit of a golden age, between the rebirth of supersonic speed and the first birth of commercial space travel. Now, one start-up based in Washington state is working to make air travel more energy efficient and less time-consuming through an underutilized resource: the small regional airport. And to boot, it just got a bunch of money from JetBlue and Boeing to do it.
Zunum Aero, which is developing hybrid-electric jets for flights under 1,000 miles to replace the gas guzzlers on shuttle-routes like Washington, D.C.-Boston and San Francisco-Los Angeles, just got a major boost with investments from Boeing's brand new ventures arm HorizonX and JetBlue Technology Ventures, a subsidiary of the New York-based airline.
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.
But, these planes aren't going to be taking you across the Atlantic—instead, Zunum is focusing on the regional market, as a way to replace costly shuttle jets and even supplant highways and rails as the first choice for quick trips. The idea is that if travelers are trying to make a quick day trip up the West Coast, their options are limited by how much they are willing to shell out and how much time it takes to navigate commute times, long security lines, and crowded major airports. To solve that, Zunum is eyeing the network of 5,000 small, hop-on, hop-off regional airports and airstrips, used mostly by private jets and prop planes at present. These airports, the company believes, will not only cut down on travel time, but also make air travel more accessible to remote communities.
The limitations placed on airlines by noise regulations, resource requirements, and fueling costs "has concentrated almost all air traffic to just two percent of our airports," says Ashish Kumar, CEO and founder of Zunum Aero. "As a result, door-to-door times for most journeys are no better than they were 50 years ago. Hybrid propulsion is an industry-changing solution, enabling mid-sized aircraft on regional routes to have better cost efficiencies than airliners."
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, Oregon to 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.
Bonny Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures, commends Zunum Aero's position as a disruptor in what many regard as an antiquated industry, but also sees the potential in tapping into the regional airport network. "We believe that Zunum and its quiet, environmentally-friendly aircraft will light up a vast network of underutilized airports and reinvent regional travel."
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. As Traveler's Cynthia Drescher reported, the Trump administration's budget proposal includes the cutting of the Essential Air Service (EAS) program that keeps many small rural airports running—the very airports that, for the development of a regional air travel system, could prove, well, essential.
This story originally appeared on Conde Nast Traveler.
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