Potentially the most disruptive aircraft since 1958 when the De Havilland Comet became the first passenger jet to cross the Atlantic. Zunum aims to have completely different operating costs from any other small jet. These lower operating costs mean that it can create brand new markets – even with pilots – giving it the opportunity to truly democratise aviation.
The aircraft is firmly aimed at airlines and air-taxi operators. But once it gets off the ground it will also be attractive to environmentally-minded corporates and individuals.
Certifying and manufacturing new aircraft are extremely difficult and protracted processes. Existing manufacturers spend millions creating new aircraft and things are even harder for start-ups. Honda spent billions – and more than 15 years – to get the HondaJet to delivery. Even though Zunum Aero has impressive investors (including Boeing), the electric and hybrid technology that is key to the project has not been tested. The company is planning to build its own aircraft and propulsion systems. Buying an early production aircraft is always risky. Buying one from a start-up is even riskier.
It is a mistake to think of Zunum Aero as the aviation version of Tesla. It is a new entrant looking to challenge existing kerosene-powered aircraft with electric and hybrid technology. But, while electric cars are cheaper to drive, the cost-savings for electric aircraft are in a different league. Zunum estimates that the hourly operating cost for its first aircraft will be $250 – compared to at least $2,000 an hour for similar-sized conventional jet aircraft.
Two options are available: a hybrid aircraft or an all-electric version (although it will be possible to change the hybrid to an-all electric aircraft in the future. The hybrid aircraft will have a range of 700 miles the all-electric less.
With a maximum cruise speed of 340 mph/550 kph the Zunum Aero is slower than most business jets and commercial aircraft. But over short distances this is not a big issue. Zunum Aero expects to save hours on commercial airlines by using regional airports. The aircraft is designed to need just a 2,500 feet runway.
The cabin can be configured for six passengers in executive seats, nine in premium and 12 in economy. With six passengers it will be similar to a standard business jet configuration.
The first aircraft are likely to have a single pilot but Zunum Aero is already planning a completely autonomous aircraft – possibly overseen by a pilot on the ground.
Zunum Aero is targeting a list price of $5 million, pricing it close to small business jets – and with much lower operating costs. However, this price could fall when production increases.
The company is looking to build a small regional airliner and not a business jet, so most aircraft are expected to be bought in large fleet orders by airlines or operators such as launch customer JetSuite. While this is good for production planning – Zunum Aero is hoping to build around 100 a year – it does mean that an operator’s failure can have a big influence on residual values.
Zunum Aero expects the aircraft to have a shorter lifespan – around 20 years – compared to commercial aircraft as technology is updated.
The ability to switch from hybrid to electric (and vice-versa) and piloted to autonomous means that the aircraft is effectively a single type making it attractive to investors.
Maximum range: 700 miles
Maximum speed: 340 miles
Typical passengers: 6-12
Typical crew: 1 or none
List price for new aircraft: $5 million