Startup Zunum Aero wants to make hybrid planes the norm

Josh Andah Apr 16, 2017

Americans currently prefer to drive, take the bus, or ride the train for regional journeys (i.e. journeys within state, or less than 1,000 miles). Planes aren’t that popular of an option, because getting on them is much more cumbersome than getting in a car. After all, why would anyone go through the hassle of airport security and ticket prices just to travel from Boston to New York?

A startup called Zunum Aero wants to make the plane the go-to option. With tickets as cheap as $25 and extremely quick boarding times, thanks to limited security screen- ing, Zunum’s ights will be as convenient as taking a bus. The Zunum Aero team is made of pilots, Ph.D. holders, and ight scientists. Its CEO, Ashish Kumar, was inspired by the disruptive nature of electric aircraft, and hopes his startup will inspire others.

Zunum’s business plan includes such cheap tickets thanks to one thing: hybrid planes. These are planes that run their engines on electricity, or fuel if batteries do not have enough charge. These planes offer much cheaper tickets than conventional airlines because ticket pricing is not as dependent on uctuating fuel prices.

There isn’t much else beyond regional ights Zunum Aero can offer at the moment. With hybrid planes, range is greatly limited by battery technology, because batteries can only hold so much charge today. The technology is gradually improving, though. The startup will initially offer 700 mile journeys. As better batteries are produced with time, Zunum will begin to consider journeys of up to 1,000 miles. Improved battery technology will help make Zunum Aero’s planes fully electric someday. For now, its planes rely partially on fuel to complete their journeys.

Zunum Aero will have tough competition in the future. Many startups are tackling the challenge of faster regional commutes. Hyperloop, for example, will shorten travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles
to 20 minutes once it’s up and running. Zunum Aero’s amazing $25 offer may be what wins the competition, however.

In an era of climate change, many companies are searching for alternative plane technology to counter the fuel jet engine. Currently, short ights produce up to 40 percent of aviation emissions in the United States. The ozone layer has weakened drastically over the decades, and this may be partially due to the commercial airline industry. Zunum Aero’s planes will have zero emissions while running on electricity. Air pollution isn’t the only type of pollution Zunum Aero is taking on. Its planes will be incredibly quiet, reducing noise pollution over suburban areas.

Solar Impulse 2 is a plane that made history in 2016 by ying around the world, powered only by solar panels. Although Solar Impulse 2 soars at a mere 140 kilome- ters per hour, its achievement signals that the future of clean air travel is budding. As solar panels become more ef cient, solar planes could begin to compete commercially with fuel jet airliners.

If there’s one thing the airline industry demonstrates time and time again, it’s that a business plan is as important as the technology itself. For example, the cutting-edge technology that was the supersonic Concorde couldn’t survive because it didn’t make enough pro t and was costly to service. If Zunum Aero’s cheap ticket prices are enough to service planes, replace worn out batteries, and pay staff, then it has a strong future. Large companies such as Boeing and Jet Blue certainly think Zunum Aero has a future and a lot of promise. That’s why those two companies have established themselves as the startup’s partners.