JetBlue has made an investment in Zunum Aero, a Kirkland, Washington, startup that hopes to have a hybrid electric airplane flying in about two years. It will be like “Tesla for the air,” says Bonny Simi, president of JetBlue Technology Ventures, but she declined to say how much of an investment her company has made. Boeing is also an investor in the company.
Ashish Kumar, a mechanical and aerospace engineer, founded Zunum in 2013. The company’s name is derived from “tzunuum,” a Mayan word for hummingbird. Kumar claims his company’s electric hybrid propulsion technology can drive down costs for airlines by up to 80% because it would allow airlines to use more short-haul routes of fewer than 1,000 miles. Using its electric airplanes, passengers could fly in and out of smaller airports instead of using the hub-and-spoke system in use today, which makes them connect via a large airport near a large city.
Short-haul flights are often expensive because airlines carry fewer passengers to these destinations and have to charge more to cover the costs of operating a flight with fewer passengers. For instance, a roundtrip ticket for a flight from Mobile to Atlanta, a distance of 660 miles, costs $239. A roundtrip ticket for the 1,780-mile flight between Atlanta and New York City is only $160. Lowering the cost of flights could create a more affordable transportation option for those living in rural communities. Donald Trump has proposed slashing government subsidies for rural airports, which could force some to close, cutting off rural inhabitants from access to air travel. Zunum pulls toward a different trend.
Zunum expects its planes to carry about 50 passengers using electricity from batteries mounted in the wings. Kumar expects the first prototype of his electric airplane to be ready in about two years.
Progress is a curious thing. First we hear of an idea and think it’s crazy. An electric airplane? Yeah, as if. Then, suddenly, news of electric airplanes is everywhere. Just a few days ago, we reported on a British startup that plans to make an electric airplane that carries 100 passengers. It, too, is designed for short-haul flights and has attracted attention from industry giant Airbus.
The same thing happened with electric cars. In 2007, we all thought Elon Musk was some wild-eyed lunatic. Today, Tesla is worth more than Ford and nearly as much as General Motors. The odds are getting better that people will be flying in electric airplanes within the next 5 years or so. Amazing.