New startups want to reduce emissions and noise by electrifying aircraft

But better batteries remain a stumbling block.

Fasten your seat belts, ensure tables are stowed —and check for a charge in the batteries. That ’s what the preflight checklist may be for a pair of plucky new startups promising to construct passenger electrical planes in the decade.

Zunum Aero, backed by JetBlue and Boeing, today announced plans to build a fleet of electrical planes that could each ferry 10-50 people as far as 700 miles. It is planning to start managing flights from the early 2020s.

Zunum joins Wright Electric, fresh out of Y Combinator, which last month described its plans to build electric airplanes. It hopes to be flying within a decade.

They’ll find themselves up against competition from players that are established that are larger. Previously, Boeing has experimented with fuel cell light aircraft and, more lately, Airbus has been analyzing a totally battery-powered two-seater called E-Fan.

Their aims are laudable. The aviation industry reports for greenhouse gas emissions much like all those created by the whole of Germany, so even cutting emissions from merely regional flights would be on helping clean up the planet a start. And electrical airplanes make a sound that is less than their regular counterparts, so residents of the comparatively quiet regional airports shouldn’t find themselves disturbed.

Both Zunum and Wright are on enhancing battery technology to get their business proposals fly gambling. As we’ve reported before, the technology necessary to fly modest two- or four-seater electric airplanes has improved, and the idea certainly isn’t as farfetched as it looked. But hauling 50 people or more is one that will demand substantially larger aircraft and way more power, a considerably bigger challenge. While solar panels may have helped a lightweight plane to circumnavigate the planet, they’re not a practical choice for the bigger craft.

Realistically, that means better batteries will be required for all-electrical commercial air travel to take off in order. But large improvements in commercial battery technology have proved challenging to come by, and it’s not clear how much time it might be before the next one. In case a battery breakthrough is not forthcoming, Wright and Zunum may be induced to use hybrid technologies—which could provide some, but not all of the edges the companies are swearing — to get their businesses off the earth.

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