JetSuiteX order positive for electric aviation
It is easy to overuse the phrase landmark deal, but JetSuiteX, the Californian business-jet operator, made one this week. It ordered – and paid a deposit – for up to 100 Zunum Aero aircraft.
Much of the order will be made up of Zunum Aero’s hybrid aircraft with the first due in 2022. Some will be all-electric.
You may fall into the trap of being sceptical about all of this.
You may be questioning how a company of which you know little will be able to certificate and build an aircraft in just five years — especially one that is largely electric. If I tell you that it is designed to eventually fly without pilots, you might by now be rolling your eyes.
You have a point. It is not the first time that companies have received lots of media coverage for launch orders. Back in 2007 Pogo Jet ordered 115 Eclipse 500s (replacing an order for 75 Adam A700s). And there were others.
But Alex Wilcox, CEO and co-founder of JetSuiteX, is like any other successful operator, not given to misguided exuberance. This is not his first rodeo.
Having helped launch two airlines (JetBlue and Indian carrier Kingfisher) he co-founded JetSuite in 2006 to take advantage of the light-jet revolution. Unlike DayJet and Pogo, JetSuite survived. It started with Phenom 100s, added Citation Jets later, and then launched JetSuiteX – an innovative concept flying Embraer 135s between secondary airports.
Wilcox believes that Zunum Aero will revolutionise aviation.
“Zunum offers us a 70% reduction in fuel costs. We are talking about $250 an hour operating costs. This is transformative,” says Wilcox who has been studying electric aircraft for several years. “This is different to the hype surrounding very light jets – where the costs are similar. Getting fuel bills lower is a priority for any airline. Zunum is a game changer.”
Zunum boasts an impressive list of investors including Boeing and JetBlue Technology Ventures, the low-cost airline’s venture capital fund. (JetBlue – but not JetBlue Technology Ventures – is also an investor in JetSuite.)
“Obviously for any aircraft programme the first order is significant,” says Ashish Kumar, CEO and co-founder of, Zunum Aero. “But this is especially important as the technology is so novel. Having a leading operator bet on us is fantastic.”
Zunum Aero is launching one type with two variations. You can choose a jet-fuel and electric hybrid or an all-electric aircraft. With a list price of around $5 million the hybrid aircraft can carry up to 12 passengers around 700 miles. The all-electric version has a smaller range but Kumar expects this to increase as battery technology improves (it will also be easy to convert the hybrid into an all-electric type when this happens). The hybrid aircraft aims to burn 70% less fuel and make 70% less noise than a comparable conventional jet.
The company has studied every recent aircraft launch (Kumar is ex-McKinsey) and is not getting carried away with the Eclipse level-production plans of 1,000 aircraft a year. It aims to start slowly, hopefully delivering a handful in 2022 and then ramp up to around 150 aircraft a year.
Because the electric distributed power system is key, Kumar says that it makes sense for Zunum to build it itself rather than outsourcing to an engine manufacturer. Zunum – which is hiring – has already recruited engineers from Rolls-Royce, GE and Safran to do this. “We are agnostic,” jokes Kumar. Zunum has been working closely with the US Federal Aviation Administration since it launched in 2013.
Electric aircraft are becoming possible now for two reasons. First, batteries are improving and second, the FAA is set to change regulations (Part 23) which will make launching electric aircraft much easier (Zunum has been working closely with several electric Vertical Take Off and Landing – or eVTOL — companies on this).
The rise in excitement about eVTOLs is also helping Zunum even though it has chosen to focus on a fixed-wing aircraft (it originally looked at eVTOL. The company’s name is Mayan for hummingbird reflecting this).
“We are entering a once-in-a-generation change in propulsion,” says Kumar. “Gas turbines do not scale down well, so airlines are focused on larger aircraft. Electric-powered light aircraft are more efficient and will completely change the economics of short-haul flight.”
He believes that electric aircraft will change aviation in much the same ways solar panels and wind turbines have changed energy production.
Wilcox envisages fleets of JetSuiteX aircraft flying between secondary airports – like Burbank and Orange County – typically flying a few hundred miles. Wilcox says that they may even operate very short flights. “There are some routes within LA, for example, where we could fly someone for 20 minutes saving them two hours in a car.”
As well as using his aviation experience, Wilcox relied on knowledge that he gained as a parent. He says: “The first thing I checked was that batteries are included.”