Zunum Aero: The Tesla of the skies

Sandi Adam, Chief Marketer, Zunum Aero, interviewed by Ross Falconer.

Zunum Aero hopes that by routing more traffic to under-utilised regional and general aviation airports, and providing much lower operating costs, it will make air travel more efficient and convenient and simplify the door-to-door travel experience.

A new wave of travel disruptors and innovators is ensuring that constant change is the new normal. In just five years’ time, regional air travel could be transformed by hybrid-electric aircraft. At least that’s the vision of Washington-based start-up Zunum Aero, which is backed by Boeing HorizonX and JetBlue Technology Ventures.

Sandi Adam, Chief Marketer, Zunum Aero: “Short-haul flights produce over 40% of aviation emissions. With our aircraft, we believe these will be largely eliminated within 20 years. Our aircraft are ‘hybrid-to-electrics’ that sip fuel only when they have to.”

“We’re very close to that vision becoming reality,” says Sandi Adam, Chief Marketer, Zunum Aero. “We’ve been working with the FAA for three years on electric aircraft certification and we expect our first commercial aircraft to enter service as early as 2022. We’re on track – all of our milestones are being hit.”

The next big milestones are a flying test bed within two years, followed a year later by a critical design review.

Electric-vehicle batteries, similar to those manufactured by Tesla, will power the aircraft, which will initially have a range of 700 miles, extending to 1,000 miles by 2030. Electric propulsion is said to cut community and cabin noise by 75%, and emissions by 80%.

“Short-haul flights produce over 40% of aviation emissions. With our aircraft, we believe these will be largely eliminated within 20 years,” Adam comments. “Our aircraft are ‘hybrid-to-electrics’ that sip fuel only when they have to, will use even less over time as batteries upgrade, and will one day go completely without fuel. I’m pretty excited about the trajectory.”

Designed to be a commuter aircraft, the configuration will range from 10 to 50 seats, with aim of addressing a perceived gap in the regional market. Zunum Aero hopes that by routing more traffic to under-utilised regional and general aviation airports, and providing much lower operating costs, it will make air travel more efficient and convenient and simplify the door-to-door travel experience.

“There are 13,500 under-utilised airports in the US and 2,500 in the EU. We’d welcome conversations with European airports,” says Adam. “As we’re still in the development stage, we’re interested to know what airports really want from us. From our standpoint, the infrastructure changes needed at airports are minimal. All that’s needed is a way to charge the batteries, a place to store them, and the infrastructure to swap the batteries.”

Technological, digital and engineering advancements are reshaping almost every industry, and the air transport sector (and the wider travel industry for that matter) is no exception.

The return of supersonic air travel and the development of electric aircraft were both considered hugely ambitious just a few years ago, but big strides are being made with the potential to redefine the future of air travel. Uber Elevate aims to take ride sharing to the skies, and in April announced plans to trial an electric fleet with vertical take-off and landing capabilities in Dubai and Dallas-Fort Worth by 2020. Then, of course, there is Hyperloop, the brainchild of Elon Musk, who claims the concept would allow passengers to be transported at 760 miles per hour, cutting travel time between Los Angeles and San Francisco to just 35 minutes. Dubai has already commissioned a feasibility study to explore Hyperloop’s potential.

Zunum Aero, meanwhile, aims to bring electric aircraft to life in a way that opens up services to thousands of smaller regional airports, and brings sustainable air transport closer to more communities.

“We definitely see ourselves as disrupting the regional market, and it’s a market ripe for disruption,” Adam concludes.

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