Boeing-backed US upstart reckons it'll be building electric airliners

Let's hope they walk the walk better than they talk the talk

A naïve American startup run by "dreamers" claims that its electrically powered airliner concept will magically sweep away all of the world's existing problems with air travel.

Zunum Aero, based in Washington state, wants to build a fleet of what it calls hybrid electric jets for service on short and medium-haul airline routes, primarily in America.

It claims that lowering operational costs by relying on electricity instead of aviation kerosene will lead to much cheaper ticket prices for airline passengers. It also reckons that by making these aircraft smaller than current airliners – in the 10-50 seat range – they will not be subject to quite so many US TSA regulations.

"Imagine leaving your doorstep in San Jose at 7am and making it to a 9:30am meeting in Pasadena," burbles the blurb on their website. "With Zunum Aero, simply drive to a nearby airfield and walk to your aircraft with bags in tow, for a trip that will take half the time and at a much lower fare. Or skip the meeting altogether, and be on the slopes in Tahoe by 8:40am for $100 round-trip, and back home the same evening."

Tech blog The Verge interviewed Zunum chief exec Ashish Kumar, managing to avoid basic questions such as "how does it work?", "how long will it take to recharge?" and "how much will your batteries weigh and does that leave a commercially viable payload?" The company's one-page website does not elaborate on any of these points.

What it does claim is that its electric aircraft "need little support other than a GPS flightpath and a quick recharge or swap facility on the tarmac", which is an interesting way of viewing flight plans, low and high-altitude airways, and all the rest of it.

Zunum's oft-mentioned "hybrid" engines, and in particular their concept pictures, suggest that their engines will look like something in between turboprops and traditional turbofans – perhaps an electric motor. One could imagine an APU (auxiliary power unit, small gas turbine engine typically mounted in the tail cone of an airliner) providing the power feed for takeoff, with onboard batteries being used for the less-intensive cruise and descent flight phases. This is all just guesswork, however.

Boeing's new HorizonX venture capital arm (detailed by Bloomberg here) and regional US airline Jetblue are both investors in Zunum, though there are no public details of how much money each firm has sunk into the startup. Each has a presence on the board, however. These investments suggest that no matter how sketchy Zunum's public information is at present, there must be something worthwhile in it. ®

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