Yes, electric commercial flights might really become a thing
"Oh come on! Can we have some fact checking in journalism? THIS.JUST.WONT.HAPPEN."
Thus was the response from one commenter when I wrote about EasyJet's promise of electric passenger flights within a decade. And I must say, I kind of understand the response—it was not a possibility that had been very high on my radar either.
After all, while the idea that electric cars will dominate in the not-too-distant future has gone decidedly mainstream, we've long been told that the unique needs of air travel would mean that energy dense liquid fuels would remain the primary source of power for the foreseeable future.
Yet no sooner do I hear about EasyJet's efforts than I also hear about two other exciting developments. The first story, reported by Fast Company and others, suggests that Zunum—a Seattle-based start-up recently out of stealth mode, and backed up by Boeing and JetBlue—is gunning for hybrid-electric passenger flights as early as 2022, and 100% battery electric flights not so long after.
That's a pretty astounding ambition. Key to it, though, is understanding that Zunum isn't trying to just superimpose electric propulsion over our current inefficient, centralized hub-and-spoke model for passenger air travel. Instead, Zunum is developing smaller, nimbler aircraft with between 10 and 50 seats that are capable of utilizing America's network of regional airports to service point-to-point trips of 700 miles and less, slashing journey times in half and offering competitive pricing of somewhere around 8 cents per passenger mile. The model, they say, is capable of delivering an 80% cut in emissions on regional air travel.
Meanwhile, CNN reports that Boeing is also buying Aurora Flight Sciences. True, much of the hype around that particular acquisition has focused on the company's expertise in robotic co-pilots and autonomous drones, but Aurora also specializes in electric propulsion systems, including an electric vertical takeoff aircraft.
None of this suggests that long-distance, hub and spoke air travel is going away anytime soon. But there does appear to be a sudden surge of interest in hybrid and even fully electric passenger travel as battery prices start dropping to a point that makes such travel commercially viable.
Given the fact that avoiding air travel is currently one of the single most impactful things you can do to cut your personal carbon footprint—and given that a large chunk of my family lives on the other side of the Atlantic ocean—I for one welcome our electric, autonomous, airborne future with open arms.