Electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft get most of their lift from rotors and propellers, but they just received a massive lift from the FAA.
After months of anticipation, the agency on Tuesday released its first implementation plan for advanced air mobility (AAM) aircraft such as eVTOL air taxis. Dubbed “Innovate28,” the living document, which will be updated periodically, is designed to enable AAM operations at scale in time for the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when several air taxi firms are expected to take to the skies.
Innovate28 is focused solely on near-term operations through 2028. It defines AAM as “a transportation system that moves people and property by air between two points in the U.S. using aircraft with advanced technologies, including electric aircraft or eVTOL aircraft, in both controlled and uncontrolled airspace.”
The plan lists the various stakeholders expected to contribute to AAM implementation, including the FAA, NASA, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Energy, Air Force, and other federal agencies and departments. AAM and power industry stakeholders and state, local, and tribal communities will have roles as well.
A core tenet of the plan is a “crawl-walk-run” approach, which will rely on existing infrastructure, regulations, and procedures to support earlier entry into service. It entails sequential steps the FAA and its partners will follow to certify aircraft and their operators, train pilots, manage airspace, develop new infrastructure, and more.
By 2028, the FAA hopes to see AAM operations at scale spanning multiple “key sites”—which, according to Innovate28, will mainly include existing airports and heliports.
“This plan shows how all the pieces will come together allowing the industry to scale, with safety as the North Star,” said Katie Thomson, deputy FAA administrator.
The 40-page document contains a mountain of proposals to sift through. But here are some of the key points:
Since AAM aircraft such as air taxis have yet to receive certification or begin commercial operations, the bulk of the FAA’s plan centers around what those processes may look like.
AAM aircraft will be certified under the agency’s special class category as was previously announced in 2022. But certification bases will also draw upon performance-driven regulations under Part 23. The process will take environmental factors like noise into account and allow the FAA to approve unique design features without a special condition or exemption, as would be required in the standard category.
The FAA has also proposed that AAM aircraft manufacturers be required to develop and implement safety management systems, organization-wide policies for managing safety and risk, as part of the process.
Currently, the agency’s Aircraft Certification Service (AIR) is working toward certification with more than two dozen AAM manufacturers, such as Joby and Archer Aviation. About half of them have progressed far enough to manufacture flying prototypes.
AIR is also looking to establish certification pathways for AAM-specific technologies, including electric propulsion, lithium-ion battery systems, hydrogen fuel cells, automation, and VTOL capabilities for winged aircraft.
Companies operating AAM aircraft will need to be certified as Part 135 air carriers, as eVTOL and air taxis are expected to operate under those rules. For prospective pilots, the FAA is drawing up a new certification and training regimen that should be finalized in the coming months.
Now let’s dive into operations. At least through 2028, AAM aircraft will fly on predetermined routes and schedules, with pilots on board. They’ll be able to travel between certain sites—such as from Vertiport Chicago to O’Hare International Airport (KORD)—but flights will be heavily limited to dedicated corridors and flyways.
In urban and metropolitan areas, where the bulk of air taxi operations are expected to take place, aircraft will fly no higher than 4,000 feet. Within controlled Class B and C airspace, they’ll be required to use existing or modified low-altitude VFR corridors when possible. And to enter airspace around airports, they’ll need clearance from air traffic control.
“It is likely these aircraft will be treated as any other fixed wing/rotorcraft operating under VFR conditions, to the extent they are able to comply with existing rules, regulations, and procedures,” the document reads.
The FAA is currently engaged in further rulemaking for AAM operations that will codify the aforementioned proposals. But in the interim it expects to rely on waivers and exemptions to get eVTOL and air taxis off the ground before 2028.
As mentioned above, the FAA wants to maximize the use of existing aviation infrastructure in the near term until dedicated vertiports and urban traffic management services come online.
According to Innovate28, initial operations will take place largely at existing heliports, commercial service airports, and general aviation airports. However, operators, manufacturers, state, local, and tribal governments, and other non-FAA stakeholders will be responsible for planning, developing, and maintaining AAM infrastructure at existing airfields.
That means, for example, that partners Archer and United Airlines may need to install vertiport terminals, charging stations, parking zones, or taxiing areas at O’Hare themselves in order to launch their planned air taxi route in Chicago—the FAA won’t help them.
According to the FAA, electrical power grids may also require upgrades to accommodate the influx of electric AAM aircraft. It has an interagency agreement with the Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Lab to study how aircraft electrification will affect airport, heliport, and vertiport power grids. But don’t be surprised if the grid creates problems for AAM early on.
The bulk of Innovate28 focuses on certification, operations, and infrastructure. But the document also touches on a few other key areas.
One is assessing the environmental impacts of AAM aircraft. Though the FAA faces a lawsuit from five environmental groups over its handling of April’s SpaceX Starship launch, the agency appears dedicated to sustainable eVTOL flight. It says it will consider environmental impacts such as noise, air quality, visual disturbances, and disruptions to wildlife when certifying new AAM aircraft.
But it still needs to identify which actions besides certification—such as the establishment of air taxi routes—will trigger compliance with the National Environmental Policy Act.
Community engagement appears to be another key emphasis of Innovate28. Per the plan, the FAA will work with airports and state, local, and tribal communities to better understand their concerns about AAM operations, such as some of the aforementioned environmental impacts. It notes that other stakeholders, including AAM, airport, and vertiport operators, will play an important role in working with local communities.
Security is the final area the plan (briefly) touches on. The Department of Homeland Security “will determine what type of security is necessary,” the document notes. The FAA and Transportation Security Administration, meanwhile, will evaluate the expansion of cybersecurity requirements due to the influx of new technology.
Innovate28 is jam-packed with other proposals. But the gist is that the plan should help eVTOL companies chart a path to certification and operations, transform a handful of airfields into AAM hubs, and bring together stakeholders across the industry to address and alleviate concerns.
There’s still a lot that needs to happen before air taxis fly at the 2028 Olympic Games. But the publication of an initial implementation plan is a huge step, and it should guide the AAM industry for years to come.