Japan Airlines (JAL) has signed a memorandum of understanding with California-based eVTOL air taxi developer Wisk Aero to bring autonomous air taxi flights to Japan, the companies announced Tuesday. JAL is the first airline to partner with Wisk, which revealed its self-flying air taxi, called Gen 6, in October.
As part of the agreement, Wisk will work closely with the airline’s maintenance subsidiary, JAL Engineering Co. (JALEC), to come up with plans for the operation and maintenance of Wisk’s autonomous air taxis in Japan. But JAL is not yet committing to purchasing any of Wisk’s aircraft.
“Wisk is in a strong financial position and isn’t focused on driving aircraft orders at this time," a company spokesman told FutureFlight. "Our partnership with Japan Airlines is focused on the introduction of autonomous aircraft into the Japanese national airspace system. We believe that partnering on these activities will bring incredible value to the Japanese market. When operations begin in Japan or another country, Wisk intends to initially operate its fleet.”
With firm backing from Boeing, Wisk is developing a fully electric and autonomous air taxi designed to carry four passengers on flights of up to around 90 miles (140 kilometers). In lieu of onboard pilots, Wisk’s eVTOL air taxi flights will be remotely operated and monitored by personnel on the ground in a fleet operations center.
In addition to its certification efforts in the U.S., Wisk has been leading efforts to introduce eVTOL air taxi operations in New Zealand and Australia. The company has already been conducting flight trials with its fifth-generation prototype, called Cora, in Australia. Wisk has accrued more than 1,000 flight test hours with its earlier prototypes, but its newest Gen 6 aircraft has yet to take flight.
While several other eVTOL aircraft developers plan to have their piloted air taxis certified and in service by 2025, Wisk has not yet disclosed a timeline for when its self-flying air taxis will enter service. That’s because the path to certification is a bit more complicated for pilotless aircraft than it is for air taxis with onboard pilots.
To introduce self-flying air taxi services in Japan, Wisk and JALEC will work with the Japanese Civil Aviation Bureau (JCAB) and other local authorities to consider regulatory requirements and safety measures. The partners will also develop technical plans for the integration of pilotless and autonomous aircraft into Japan’s national airspace system.
“We are very excited to be working with Japan Airlines, and also with the Boeing Japan team," Wisk's spokesman said. "Our work with these partners and other stakeholders will help us understand the process that we will use to bring self-flying, advanced air mobility to Japan. This will tell us when we need to be hiring and training local staff to support our future operations.”
JAL, Japan’s flag carrier and largest airline, plans to be an early adopter of eVTOL air taxi services in the country and has already partnered with several aircraft developers to help bring its urban air mobility vision to fruition. In 2020, JAL became a partner of and investor in German eVTOL developer Volocopter, which is developing a two-seat air taxi called VoloCity as well as a cargo-carrying version called VoloDrone. A year later, the airline announced plans to lease or purchase up to 100 of Vertical Aerospace’s four-seat VA-X4 eVTOL air taxis from leasing group Avolon.