Air taxi developers are showing interest in this island nation

Wisk concludes airspace test flights, BETA sells an aircraft

Corrections: A previous version of this article misstated the name of New Zealand’s publicly owned air traffic service provider. The article has been updated to use the correct name, Airways New Zealand. Also, an incorrect reference to the country’s national airline has been removed.

Between its mountainous island terrain and focus on reducing carbon emissions, New Zealand has emerged as an attractive test site and potential early market for electric aircraft developers, as evidenced by two announcements this week.

One was by BETA Technologies, the Vermont air taxi developer, and the other was from Wisk, the Boeing subsidiary in California that is developing the four-passenger Gen 6 air taxi.

Let’s look first at the Wisk development. The company conducted a series of remotely piloted flights between Nov. 17 and Dec. 1 with an Insitu CTA-220 drone near Christchurch, New Zealand’s second largest city, the company announced Monday in a press release. The drone was flown beyond visual line of sight in controlled airspace — altitudes where the aircraft was in proximity with other craft, as Wisk knows it will have to do with its air taxis someday.

In New Zealand, an archipelago with hundreds of small islands, air taxis could help ferry cargo and passengers to help “connect offshore islands that might be difficult or even unsafe to reach by ferry,” Catherine McGowan, Wisk’s Asia-Pacific regional director, told me.

Ahead of the tests, McGowan said she and colleagues worked closely with the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand and Airways New Zealand, the nation’s publicly owned air traffic service provider, to identify what “approvals and regulatory processes we would need to develop.”

“What didn’t exist was a procedure to put a remotely piloted drone [operating beyond visual line of sight] inside a controlled airspace alongside piloted craft,” McGowan said. “We spent about two years developing the parameters for the test, to identify what are the procedures that might need to be updated.”

For the flights, the CT-220 took off from Tāwhaki National Aerospace Centre and ascended to between 6,000 and 9,000 feet, altitudes that general aviation aircraft commonly fly at, and that commercial airliners pass through as they ascend to their cruising altitudes.

The flights were done under the New Zealand Government Airspace Integration Trials Programme, an initiative created in 2019 to facilitate test flights of uncrewed aircraft, with the goal of practicing how they would operate in the country’s airspace.

New Zealand is a good testbed for novel aviation solutions like electric, remotely piloted aircraft, said Justine Whitfield, head of digital products for Airways International, the commercial arm of Airways New Zealand, which provided airspace traffic management services for the test flights.

“New Zealand is a homogenous country of 5 million, so it’s a smaller community than the United States, and it’s a really good environment to be able to create learnings and then come back and talk to the FAA,” Whitfield said, “which we’re doing now about what we’ve learned and how we might think about that in the larger U.S. ecosystem.”

She added, “The learnings we gain from this trial will help us to further develop a fit-for-purpose uncrewed traffic management system to support advanced air mobility operations globally.”

As for BETA, the company announced Tuesday that Air New Zealand has agreed to purchase one of BETA’s in-development Alia aircraft for cargo services beginning in 2026, with options for an additional two aircraft and rights to purchase 20 more in the future.

“New Zealand is uniquely suited for electric aviation, with its diverse terrain and focus on cleantech and the environment,” BETA told me by email.

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Air taxi developers are showing interest in this island nation