Why Is 5G Causing Air Travel Chaos? Everything You Need To Know

In recent months, chaos has erupted between telecom giants Verizon and AT&T and the U.S. aviation industry over the safety implications of their latest 5G technology.

The aerospace industry and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) are concerned that C-Band 5G — which relies on radio waves at 3.7 to 3.98 GHz — could interfere with flight safety technology such as radio altimeters that use a 4.2 to 4.4 GHz range.

“[R]adio altimeters cannot be relied upon to perform their intended function if they experience interference from wireless broadband operations,” the FAA said, adding it would require “limitations prohibiting certain operations requiring radio altimeter data when in the presence of 5G C-Band interference.”

“If bad weather means pilots can’t see a runway near those cell sites after AT&T and Verizon light up C-Band frequencies Jan. 5, expect them to land elsewhere. Or not take off at all,” USA Today explained. 

“You’ll be forced to divert the flight to an airport that is not 5G-covered,” said Robert Mann, president of the aviation-industry consulting firm R.W. Mann. & Co. “Or you’ll have to not dispatch the plane.” 

In October 2020, Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) released a report that provided clear indication “that the risk will be widespread and has the potential for broad impacts to aviation operations in the United States, including the possibility of catastrophic failures leading to multiple fatalities, in the absence of appropriate mitigations.”

What is the aerospace industry saying?

Boeing and Airbus Americas

Both Dave Calhoun, Chief Executive of Boeing, and Jeffrey Knittel, the CEO of Airbus Americas, have urged the Biden administration to delay the rollout of 5G.

In a statement, Boeing said the aerospace industry was “focused on fully evaluating and addressing the potential for 5G interference with radio altimeters,” according to NPR.

“We are collaborating with aviation authorities, government leaders, airlines, and industry groups to ensure the continued operational safety of aircraft throughout the aviation system worldwide,” it said.

“5G interference could adversely affect the ability of aircraft to safely operate,” Calhoun and Knittel asked U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in a letter, adding it could have “an enormous negative impact on the aviation industry.”

United Airlines

“If there’s any kind of weather, if there’s high winds, if the visibility isn’t good because of smog, you can’t use that equipment,” United Airlines Chief Executive Scott Kirby said. “You can’t land at airports — at Chicago O’Hare, at Atlanta, at Detroit — just think about what that means. This cannot be the outcome.”

Airlines for America

“Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” wrote the chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines and others in a letter to U.S. aviation authorities.

The airline leaders then explained that “[t]he harm that will result from deployment on January 19 is substantially worse than we originally anticipated for two key reasons.”

Trilogy of delays

In response to concerns over safety, Verizon and AT&T have delayed the rollout of 5G on three occasions. 

On November 4, 2021, Verizon and AT&T agreed to “delay by a month the commercial launch of C-band wireless service pending an assessment of any impact on aviation safety technologies,” with the launch pushed to January 5, 2022.

On January 4, 2022, shortly after refusing a last-minute federal request, AT&T and Verizon agreed to postpone the rollout of 5G technology near airports by two weeks.

And on January 18, 2022, in another eleventh-hour move, Verizon and AT&T agreed to temporarily limit some 5G services in the vicinity of key airports.

Flight cancellations

Emirates Airlines

“Due to operational concerns associated with the planned deployment of 5G mobile network services in the US at certain airports, Emirates will be suspending flights to the following US destinations from 19 January 2022 until further notice: Boston (BOS), Chicago (ORD), Dallas Fort Worth (DFW), Houston (IAH), Miami (MIA), Newark (EWR), Orlando (MCO), San Francisco (SFO) and Seattle (SEA),” the company said in a statement.

Japan Airlines

“Boeing has notified us that 5G signals for U.S. mobile phones, which will begin operating in the U.S. on January 19, 2022, may interfere with the radio wave altimeter installed on the Boeing 777,” the airline announced. “We have decided not to use this aircraft-type on the U.S. mainland routes until safety is confirmed, and we regret to cancel the flight that cannot be changed to Boeing 787.”

ANA

“With the launch of 5G service in the U.S. on Wednesday, January 19, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has indicated that radio waves from the 5G wireless service may interfere with aircraft altimeters,” the airline announced. “As a result, Boeing has announced flight restrictions on all airlines operating the Boeing 777 aircraft, and we have canceled or changed the aircraft for some flights to/from the U.S. based on the announcement by Boeing.”

Air India

“Due to deployment of 5G communications in USA,  our operations to USA

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