Seattle startup to launch commuter plane with hybrid engine by 2022

A Seattle-based startup backed by Boeing and JetBlue Airways has revealed plans to launch a commuter plane that combines electric motors with a jet-fuel engine.

Zunum Aero has announced it will launch a plane with a hybrid engine by 2022.

The planes will be powered by two electric motors and wing-integrated battery packs, as well as a supplemental jet-fuel engine. They will be piloted initially, but the hope is that they will eventually drone operated.

The company believes the model will fill a gap in the market for low-cost regional airline travel. It also forecasts that, as technology rapidly improves, future models will be able to fly solely on battery power.

"This aircraft is going to transform how we live and work," said founder Matt Knapp. "We've pushed ourselves to challenge conventional wisdom and the limits of engineering to deliver an aircraft of which we are extremely proud – one that offers efficiency and performance without compromise."

By making use of the 13,500 smaller airports that are based around big cities in the United States, Zunum Aero also said that its 12-person passenger planes will substantially reduce the cost and duration of trips under 1000 miles.

Each plane will have a maximum cruise speed of 340 miles-per-hour, and a maximum flight range of 700 miles.

Regional routes could include Republic Airport in Suffolk County, New York to Cleveland Burke Lakefront Airport, which the firm says would take just two hours and 36 minutes door-to-door, and cost $160.

As a comparison, a flight from New York's John F. Kennedy airport to Cleveland Hopkins International currently takes four hours and 23 minutes door-to-door, and costs around $288.

Stating that it wants to "democratise access to high-speed travel", three-year-old Zunum Aero is the latest addition to a growing list of companies which are developing electric passenger planes, as battery technology and artificial-intelligence navigation systems rapidly advance.

Last month, EasyJet announced its plans to develop a battery-powered aircraft in partnership with US firm Wright Electric, while firms such as Lilium, Airbus, Uber Technologies Inc and Kitty Hawk are all hurriedly developing electric planes in a bid to be the first to market.

In a separate but related development, Boeing announced last week that it is acquiring Aurora Flight Sciences, a company that focuses on autonomous flight systems designed to make robot aircraft and vehicles a reality.

The aerospace company hopes that the acquisition will help it push forward its own efforts to develop autonomous and electric aircraft for both military and commercial use.