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These hybrid electric jets could change how we live and work by 2022

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Zunum Aero aims to reinvent regional air travel

Zunum

Remember Zunum Aero? The electric jet startup backed by Boeing HorizonX and Jet Blue Technology Ventures? (It’s okay if you don’t; it’s been pretty quiet since coming out of stealth mode earlier this year.) Today, the company is putting forward a clearer vision of how it intends to shake up the aviation world by offering a closer look at the 12-passenger, hybrid electric jet that it hopes to have ready to fly by 2022.

A quick caveat: there are no electric-powered aircraft, or even gas-electric hybrid aircraft, in commercial operation today. Flying requires an incredible amount of energy, and present battery technology just doesn’t offer the power-to-weight ratio needed to achieve liftoff. Most experts predict that it will be years, if not decades, before the technology catches up. So, Zunum saying it will be ready to fly by 2022 is an incredibly risky position to stake out.

The company’s executives are convinced their powertrain and propulsion technology will get them across the finish line. The goal is to build a hybrid aircraft with a 700-mile range by 2022, and one with a 1,000-mile range by 2030. Their jets won’t be suitable for flights that are long-haul, cross-country, or transoceanic. These are intended for short, regional trips under 1,000 miles. (Think LA to San Francisco, or New York to Boston.) The idea is to offer cheap flights that are low-emission and low hassle to take off and land.

“Jet engines are efficient when they’re big and up high,” Matt Knapp, Zunum’s chief technology officer, said in an interview. “If you fly a jet engine a short distance, it’s not very efficient. So you’ve got this damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t [approach] to flying a small airplane a short distance.”

Knapp said that flights under 500 miles tend to cost three to five times more per-mile than those that are over 1,000 miles. “So what you see is airlines creep up this curve: they can lower the seat-mile cost, but now they need bigger markets, bigger airports, bigger runways,” he said. “Pretty soon you’ve lost service at tens, hundreds, thousands of small airports.”

Knapp said that Zunum aims to upend this model by making short, regional trips more efficient and cost-effective, and thus more attractive, for major carriers. “A small airplane can operate on small runways, it can operate more frequently, and it doesn’t take that long to load and unload. Suddenly it’s very, very competitive.”

By operating smaller aircraft short distances, Knapp says Zunum can overcome those obstacles that have traditionally impeded electric-powered flights. “We want to design an airplane that is going to be future compatible,” he said. “Batteries are going to keep changing... So we’re designing from the get-go. You keep the same mass, but the amount of energy in that mass is going to keep increasing. What that means on short flights: you run the generator less and less.”

Zunum predicts operating costs as low as $0.09 per seat mile, or $260 per hour for the aircraft. Its 12-passenger planes would have a maximum cruise speed of 360 mph, a takeoff distance of 2,200 feet, and an 80 percent reduction of emissions and noise. Those are attractive numbers for carriers, but mean little to passengers. For them, Zunum promises cheaper tickets at around $120–$140, or about a third less than current commercial pricing. It also vows to reduce door-to-door travel time by about half.

Zunum, which is based outside Seattle, is unique among aviation startups and Silicon Valley projects insofar that its not pursuing vertical take-off and landing technology — known colloquially as “flying cars.” Knapp said they thought about developing flying cars, but ultimately decided against it.

“It costs almost as much to develop [a flying car] as it does a five-seat airplane,” he said. “And that would require people changing habits. And that’s hard.”