The economics of flying are nothing short of brutal. To get the most out of each gallon of jet fuel, airlines have to weigh how much demand there is for the flight against how much weight it has to haul, how much fuel that will burn, and figure out whether anyone will pay that price. This equation defines every flight you get on. But what if it didn’t have to?
Boeing recently followed JetBlue by investing in Zunum Aero, which is developing what amounts to a highly efficient, short-range airplane powered by a hybrid system. The idea is simple: Replace the “hub and spoke” model airlines use with more direct flights using planes that only burn fuel when they absolutely have to.
For airlines, the benefit of burning less fuel is obvious, and it’s also good for the environment. As air travel has expanded, airplanes have seen their pollution rates skyrocket. But for travelers, it might be an even better deal. Right now, the cheapest way to shuttle travelers around is to fly them to a hub airport, like Atlanta’s Hartsfield or Chicago’s O’Hare, and then route them to “non-hub” airports on a smaller flight. So instead of flying straight to your destination, you go ridiculously afield to get a plane that will take you there.
Doing away with that would reduce total flight times by up to 80%, depending on where you’re going, and also drive down costs, since it doesn’t cost as much to get an electric plane in the air and you wouldn’t be paying for two or more flights on a ticket. So why aren’t we doing this already? The short answer is that the FAA has no standards for this kind of plane, and before it can even get into the air privately, a hybrid plane needs to have those in place. But with news that those standards should be set up by early next year, you might be riding an electric plane as soon as 2021.