Aviation

Smaller, cheaper electronic planes a reality soon?

MUMBAI: Travellers could make their first trips in the Teslas of the air sooner than expected, as aviation giants Boeing and JetBlue bet big on battery-powered jet technology.

The concept is familiar: Replace car journeys with high-speed, electric-powered travel for the masses. China does it with a famously expensive high-speed train network. Last week, Boeing and Jet-Blue Airways invested in another idea: electric planes, reports Mumbai Mirror.

If their bet pans out, travellers could start making their first trips in the Teslas of the air in a decade. That could transform the way great swathes of the world get from point A to point B – to everyone’s benefit.

Electric planes aren’t a new idea; evangelists have promised their imminent arrival for decades now. But recent advances, particularly in batteries and electric propulsion, make the possibility far more realistic.

Boeing and JetBlue were confident enough in the technology to back Zunum Aero, a Washingtonbased startup that hopes to complete a battery-powered jet by 2020.

The need is very real. In theory, by virtually eliminating fuel costs, electric planes would make currently unprofitable routes viable. According to the authorities, 70 percent of US commercial passenger air traffic passes through just 30 airports.

This hub-and-spoke system leaves the commuters who use small, regional airports stranded. Airfares at these airports tend to be significantly higher and, in many cases, subsidised by the government.

Rather than flying, Americans thus take slow-moving cars for more than half of all trips under 750 miles in order to save money. That’s not only inefficient, but it’s also terrible for the environment: Cars burn more fuel per passenger than planes.

Big developing countries such as India and China are only now beginning to develop long-distance car cultures. If they follow the US model, at far greater scale, both their already smoggy skies and their ambitious emissions targets will suffer.

Electric jets could help them accelerate the process of building aviation links to less-developed rural areas. Such planes could become the high-speed, low-carbon competition for long car rides, expensive commuter rails and trans-city buses.

Until quite recently, electric-powered flight seemed like a stunt more than a pathway to the transportation future. Solar-powered aircraft, for example, are great at raising awareness, but not at moving people around, much less in comfort.

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