Techbeat: Electric planes

NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Thursday, May 17th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

If you’re planning a trip of less than 500 miles, you’ll probably opt to drive, rather than fly. Sure, driving can be stressful, but at least it avoids the hassles, long lines and frequent delays of modern air travel, not to mention high ticket prices.

EICHER: But what about this? Suppose you could drive to a local or regional airport, walk on to a small hybrid-electric airplane, luggage in hand, and arrive at your destination in half the time it takes to drive. And all at a fare that’s more than 30 percent less than current airfares?

REICHARD: A small Washington state startup has financial backing from Boeing and JetBlue to make this model a reality within 10 years. WORLD Radio technology reporter Michael Cochrane is here now to discuss how electric airplanes may just reshape the future of regional air travel.

So, Michael, what is this company and what are they doing that has the attention Boeing and JetBlue?

MICHAEL COCHRANE, TECHNOLOGY CORRESPONDENT: Well the company, called Zunum Aero, is designing and testing small 12-seat hybrid-electric aircraft that would fly short trips – between 500 and 1,000 miles – using mostly local and regional airports. They believe that hybrid-electric-powered aircraft will be cheaper to operate than conventional jets. What’s more, they also believe this could make the use of smaller airports more feasible and encourage travelers to consider flying rather than driving.

How does a hybrid-electric airplane work?

COCHRANE: It’s not a lot different than your typical hybrid car. Hybrid simply refers to the type of power plant. The Zunum Aero plane is powered by two low-pressure ducted fans. Those are called propulsers, and each one is driven by an electric motor that puts out just under 700 horsepower. The propulsers draw their power from batteries located in the wings. What makes it a hybrid system is that the batteries are supplemented by a 700-horsepower gas turbine generator. The gas turbine basically recharges the batteries and shuts down when it isn’t needed. And that saves fuel.

You said the reduced operating costs for this kind of plane could open up travel between local or regional airports. How would that work?

COCHRANE: Yes, the company expects its plane to have between 40 and 80 percent lower operating costs than those of typical regional jet aircraft today. It plans to compete on a par with conventional long-haul airliners. Your big planes reduce their operating cost per seat mile by flying long distances between hub airports. But the Zunum planes can achieve the same economics over a short-haul distance of only 500 to 700 miles, which could reduce a daylong or day-and-a-half-long road trip into just a few hours.

So, give us an example scenario of how this concept might work.

COCHRANE: Okay. Let’s say you’re planning to go from Boston to Washington, D.C. That’s about 400 miles. If you drove, it would likely take you about 8 hours, not counting traffic delays. If you flew using the traditional hub airports of Boston’s Logan International and D.C.’s Reagan National Airport, the estimated door-to-door time would be between 4 and 5 hours. Flying a small Zunum plane out secondary airports could get you from door-to-door in as little as two and a half hours.

What would a trip like that cost?

COCHRANE: The company estimates that a trip like that between small, regional airports would be about $140 one way. That’s about a third below today’s average commercial rates.

Wow, that sounds enticing. Are there enough of those small airports to make a concept like this feasible?

COCHRANE: Well, here’s a stat that will probably surprise you: The U-S has about 13,500 airports and just 1 percent of them carry more than 96 percent of the air traffic. So, the idea would be to decentralize much of the air travel to regional airports. Of course, regulations would have to be worked out for these short-haul trips—including levels of security and also certification for the aircraft. But the infrastructure is there. And travelers wouldn’t experience the bottlenecks typical at major airports.

When could we see these hybrid-electric airplanes in operation?

COCHRANE: Zunum has an ambitious 18-month test program that will put full-scale flight tests in the air in 2019. Beginning in 2022 the company plans to deliver planes to its first customers – which could include JetBlue. As you noted, JetBlue and Boeing are providing financial backing for this effort.

Do you think we’ll ever see all-electric airplanes like we have electric cars?

COCHRANE: I think the pressure in this direction is huge, but there’ll need to be a big breakthrough in producing batteries that can deliver power and also weigh less. You see, the biggest technological challenge with aircraft is balancing weight, reliability and cost. Batteries are notoriously heavy and even with today’s lithium-ion batteries, you’d need a lot of them for an all-electric plane. That’s why the hybrid-approach is being taken now. But I think the trend toward all-electric transportation would be a net benefit for the environment. As Christians, we should be concerned for the environment as we are called to be good stewards of the resources God has provided and this approach would be potentially far more environmentally friendly.

Michael Cochrane is World ‘s Technology correspondent. Thanks, Michael!

COCHRANE: You’re welcome, Mary.

(Photo/Zunum Aero)

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