Boeing-backed hybrid plane start-up gets an engine supplier 

  • Zunum Aero is backed by venture arms of Boeing and JetBlue Airways.
  • Safran plans to modify a helicopter engine for the hybrid planes.
  • Zunum aims to test electric hybrid flights next year.
A model of Zunum Aero hybrid-electric aircraft
Source: Zunum Aero
A model of Zunum Aero hybrid-electric aircraft

One of the world's biggest airplane-engine manufacturers is betting on a future of electric flight.

French engine maker Safran is planning to produce engines for Zunum Aero, a hybrid-electric airplane start-up that has been backed by venture arms at Boeing and JetBlue Airways.

It is a key milestone for the airplane as engines are among the toughest pieces of technology to perfect.

Without an engine "it might as well be a cool freehand drawing," said Richard Aboulafia, a vice president at aerospace research firm the Teal Group.

Safran is planning to modify a helicopter engine for the 12-seat Zunum plane, which it is calling the ZA10. The plane would run on batteries and a gasoline-powered turbine engine.

Zunum, which is also backed by Washington state's Clean Energy Fund, said Thursday the first batch of planes will seat 12 passengers and would be available in 2022. The company conducted ground tests this year near Chicago and is planning flight tests in 2019.

JetBlue Ventures, which is backing Zunum, said it hopes the planes could be used for flights under 1,000 miles.