Green aircraft builder may need infusion of greenbacks

10-passenger air taxi aircraft

They’re calling it the ZA10, which will carry about 10 passengers.

Zunum is pursuing two different power plant options: the hybrid-electric model with a 700-mile range it plans to flight test before the end of the year, and an all-electric motor powering ducted fans, which will follow in 2025.

Assuming Zunum can convince investors to get on board.

Cash crunch

Zunum landed some big-name investors for its earliest financing rounds. Boeing and JetBlue put money into the venture, through the two company’s investment funds, as did the state of Washington, which put up $800,000 from a fund designed to support clean-tech innovation in the state.

But momentum seems to have cooled.

In January, Aviation International News reported that Zunum had been unable to close its latest fundraising round in August 2018.

“That fell through, which put us in a lurch,” Chief Engineer Matt Knapp told the magazine. Without additional cash, the company may have to slow development, he added. In tech start-up terms, this means hoarding cash to slow the burn rate.

Last week, a spokeswoman for the company didn’t confirm or deny the report to LNA. She provided a statement from the company that said only that the fundraising process has been “unpredictable, given that the vast majority of venture funds are focused elsewhere” and that timing of investments is “driven by investors and what it takes to get them to a decision, not by us.”

The company has a little time to line up more investors and still stay on its timeline, CEO Ashish Kumar told LNA last week.

Flight testing this year

The goal is to start flight testing simple versions of the hybrid engine this year, using a four-seat Rockwell Commander turbo-prop. Zunum plans to do its site selection for a manufacturing plant in 2020, Kumar said. Once that’s settled, it will start ordering tooling and hiring workers.

However, Kumar said Zunum also is open to partnering with an established airframer that could assemble the ZA10s. He said his company has requested proposals from several of them. Kumar didn’t name any of these potential partners, but said that one has been consulting with Zunum engineers on manufacturing design and process for about a year.

“We don’t want to reinvent the wheel or have to learn things that other people already know,” he said. “We will do some pieces of it, and we’re open to some very creative arrangements.”

The company has only one announced supplier deal, with Safran, which is providing a modified helicopter engine that will be the gas-powered range extender for the initial hybrid planes. Without naming any other companies, Kumar said Zunum has reached partnership agreements with suppliers “on all key areas of the aircraft.”

Overseas interest?

So far, Zunum has only one announced deal for the ZA10 – a memorandum of understanding for “up to” 100 planes with small, Dallas-based, luxury charter carrier JetSuite, which currently operates a fleet of 17 Embraer Phenom very light jets and one Legacy 650 business jet.

Kumar maintains, however, that Zunum is attracting a lot of attention from potential buyers overseas.

“We’ve done deep dives with carriers in every continent, other than Africa,” he said. “The Norwegians are very interested in this thing. They want to be 100 percent electric in short haul by 2040.” He also claimed interested from potential Chinese buyers.

Kumar said Zunum is working with a range of government and industry groups in both Europe and Asia on plans to develop the infrastructure needed to quickly scale up electric-powered aviation.

Domestic opportunities?

Much of the talk surrounding Zunum to date has been about the company’s vision to become an air-taxi service, allowing operators to shuttle travelers between general aviation air fields closer to their actual destinations, while bypassing the hassles of crowded airports.

But Kumar said he envisions that the ZA10 (and the larger follow-on planes the company has on the drawing board) could help bring back essential air service at third- and fourth-tier commercial airports.

Here in Washington state, places like Moses Lake in the 1980s used to have regularly scheduled air service, typically on 18-seat Fairchild Swearingen Metroliners, or even 11-seat Beechcraft 18s. Despite being the flight test center for the Mitsubishi MRJ, with four airplanes based here, and a composites center for BMW’s electric car, this town of 23,000 in east central Washington has struggled to sustain scheduled air service. It currently has none.

Sees profitability

Kumar said small carriers were able to operate those routes profitably with the small planes,  – at least until they got successful enough to attract the attention of larger carriers, which had larger planes (think Bombardier Q200s or Q400s) with lower per-seat-mile costs. The bigger players would chase off the smaller carriers, but then couldn’t generate enough traffic to meet the profit margin demands of the larger carrier, so in time they’d turn eliminate service, or cut it back to a bare-bones daily round trip to a regional hub.

Kumar says the battery-powered Zunum planes will have 80% percent lower costs per available seat mile, which could allow small carriers to get back into business providing service on these smaller routes, at a price point that larger carriers would be hard-pressed to match. That would restore service to smaller cities  – and take a number of hub-bound cars off the road.

Next steps

Zunum’s goal is to start testing the hybrid gas-electric power plant late this year, and if all goes well, it will start a site-selection process in 2020. Washington state is the most-likely choice for Zunum’s assembly plant, Kumar said. The goal is to have the planes certified and in service in 2023.

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