Skift Take

Don't let recent news fool you. This is a promising development, but we're still far from a world in which a substantial number of passengers fly on a hybrid-electric plane.

A hybrid-to-electric aircraft manufacturer supported by JetBlue Airways and Boeing said Thursday it expects to deliver planes to customers by 2022.

But don’t expect JetBlue — or any other larger U.S. airline — to adopt the new technology so soon. This aircraft, developed by a Washington state-based company called Zunum Aero, is in its early stages, and it has some limitations.

The first-generation plane announced Thursday by Zunum will seat no more than 12 passengers. And it’ll fly as fast as 340 mph with a range of 700 miles. The technology is promising, but Zunum has not announced any orders.

Zunum executives suggest the aircraft could be useful for smaller commericial airlines now flying the smallest turboprops. That might put in play a carrier like Cheyenne, Wyoming-based Great Lakes Airlines, which flies some nine-seat Beechcraft 1900Ds to places like Farmington, New Mexico and Telluride, Colorado.

The smallest airlines, which often have the most trouble finding pilots, may also be intrigued by another feature — Zunum’s planes could fly with one or even zero pilots. Still, it might take some time before regulatory bodies permit pilotless commericial aircraft, so Zunum expects that, at least in the beginning, planes will have two pilots.

Larger regional airlines, such as SkyWest, which flies as United Express, Delta Connection, American Eagle, and Alaska Airlines, might not find Zunum’s first-generation plane so intriguing. For now, they prefer planes with between 50 and 76 seats, and not until the mid-to-late 2020s does Zunum expect to develop technology powerful enough to propel a larger regional aircraft cost-effectively.

In the short term, in addition to tiny turboprop-flying airlines, Zunum’s target is smaller cargo operators and private jet companies. Both fly many shorter routes, so a 700-mile range would not be a major issue. They likely would appreciate that the aircraft will be able to take off on short runways.

If cargo airlines and private jet firms like the aircraft, Zunum executives say they hope commericial airlines will take it more seriously. Eventually, the manufacturer predicts, larger airlines will demand bigger hybrid-electric planes.

“For businesses, this is kind of an economic life and death situation,” Ashish Kumar, Zunum’s CEO, said an interview. “If the ROI works — if there is a payoff — they will make the change. Of course, the technology needs to be proven.”

Technology is Feasible

At least for the first-generation 12-seat plane, Kumar said the technology to develop it exists, and manufacturing the plane is feasible.

It’s why JetBlue, through JetBlue Technology Ventures, and Boeing, through its HorizonX Ventures program, have invested in Zunum, Kumar said. JetBlue and Boeing seek to invest in platforms that can disrupt the travel industry.

“There’s a set of questions a lot of people have about whether this thing will actually fly,” Kumar said. “People ask, ‘Have you done your homework?’ The concerns are automatically addressed because leaders like JetBlue and Boeing have done diligence on us.”

JetBlue has made no plans to buy the aircraft, and likely would have no interest in a 12-seat plane. But JetBlue Technology Ventures President Bonny Simi said last week JetBlue sees a reason to serve smaller airports with smaller planes. For now, JetBlue flies only to medium and larger airports.

“People will still go to JFK, but we’re already seeing smaller airfields with smaller aircraft become more popular,” Simi said last week during a panel discussion at Skift Global Forum in New York City. “We see the potential for the very ultra-short-haul market to be disrupted.”

Others Developing Similar Planes

Zunum is not the only electric-plane manufacturer to make news in recent weeks. Late last month, EasyJet said it was working with Los Angeles manufacturer Wright Electric to develop a battery-powered plane capable of flying 335 miles.

Unlike JetBlue, however, EasyJet is not investing the company. Instead, the airline said it would share information with Wright Electric about what carriers might want in a battery-powered plane. Wright Electric has said it hopes to have an aircraft certified within a decade.

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Tags: airline innovation, Boeing, easyjet, jetblue airways

Photo credit: Zunum Aero said Thursday it expects to deliver its first 12-seat hybrid- electric plane by 2022. JetBlue and Boeing are investors. Zunum Aero

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