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Zunum Aero develops electric planes to restore regional flights

A model of Zunum Aero hybrid-electric aircraft
Source: Zunum Aero
A model of Zunum Aero hybrid-electric aircraft

Zunum Aero announced Wednesday it is developing electric aircraft to get travelers out of their cars and into planes for regional commercial flights of up to 1,000 miles.

The Kirkland, Wash.-based company is working with Boeing HorizonX, an arm of the jet manufacture that invests in innovative technology, and JetBlue Technology Ventures to develop 10- to 50-seat aircraft for flights that could begin in the early 2020s. The goal is to return flights to smaller communities that lost air service during the last 30 years as regional airlines consolidated routes aboard larger aircraft.

"We believe that the industry is on the cusp of a golden era on regional air," Zunum CEO Ashish Kumar told USA TODAY. "Air used to be a much larger factor of the travel over these distances."

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Despite flying lower and slower than airliners, Zunum officials hope to cut airfares and overall travel times in half with more-efficient planes flying mostly out of general-aviation airports. Passengers would carry their luggage straight from their cars to the planes, rather than pass through Transportation Security Administration checkpoints.

"The cabin is designed to bring all your bags on board," Kumar said. "It's much more like a bus or a train."

For trips up to 500 miles, nearly all travelers (95.4%) drive and almost nobody (1.6%) flies, according to a 2006 National Household Travel Survey by the Transportation Department. The balance begins to shift at 500 to 750 miles, with 61.2% driving and 33.7% flying. For trips from 750 to 1,000 miles, a majority of 55.2% fly and 42.3% still drive.

Part of the reason for staying behind the wheel is because of time-consuming aspects around flying. The flights could be appealing – even for heavily traveled routes from Boston to Washington, D.C. – for the same reason that people ride Amtrak in the Northeast corridor.

"Our ability to identify, shape and harness game-changing innovations wherever they are developed is key to sustaining and growing our leadership in aerospace," Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said.

A trip with a direct flight up to 500 miles takes the average traveler three and a half hours when counting the drives to and from the airports, and the time spent in the terminal and on the plane, according to a 2003 Transportation Department study. A traveler spends nearly four and a half hours on all parts of a trip with a direct flight up to 1,000 miles, according to the study from the John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center.

"There's where we're stepping in," Kumar said. "What's really killing you is the ground time."

Zunum, which was founded in 2013 with a name derived from the Mayan word for hummingbird, plans to pair airframes from a choice of dozens of manufacturers worldwide with batteries already developed for cars, to create aircraft that are more efficient than jet-fueled planes. A generator will be on board for backup power or longer flights, Kumar said.

Airliners are built to fly long distances at high altitudes, but are less efficient when taxiing, taking off and landing for these relatively short flights, Kumar said.

"The way we are reversing the clock is to the turn the economics upside down," Kumar said. "Let's make it less expensive than the larger one."

The Federal Aviation Administration is scheduled to release a final round of regulations in 2018 to spur development of electric planes, Kumar said. Zunum's first aircraft is expected to fly up to 700 miles, such as from San Francisco to Portland, in the early 2020s. Zunum expects to fly planes up to 1,000 miles, such as from Seattle to Los Angeles or Boston to Jacksonville, Fla., by 2030.

"We can light up thousands of airports sitting out there and provide fast and affordable travel for everybody," Kumar said.