Airlines stave off another 5G impasse with a late, temporary and limited reprieve

Jan 18, 2022

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Another 5G-related aviation crisis appears to have been averted — for now. But that didn’t come before a handful of foreign carriers scrapped dozens of U.S. flights amid an escalating fight between the U.S. airline and telecom industries.

First, though, AT&T and Verizon on Tuesday agreed to limit their new 5G C-Band service near airports after a series of dire pleas from the nation’s airline executives. The service will continue to go live elsewhere on Wednesday.

“At our sole discretion we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment,” AT&T said in a statement.

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“As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports,” Verizon added in a statement of its own. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries.”

In a statement, President Joe Biden thanked the telecom companies.

“This agreement will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled,” Biden said.

Tuesday’s move did not come before several foreign carriers decided to take proactive measures on their own.

Japan Airlines was among those canceling U.S. flights.

“Boeing has notified us that 5G signals for U.S. mobile phones … may interfere with the radio wave altimeter installed on the Boeing 777,” JAL said in a tweet explaining the move. “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.”

Emirates canceled nearly all its U.S. service as a result of the 5G dispute, with the cancellations coming largely on routes where it flies the 777. Other carriers canceling service to the U.S. include Air India and All Nippon Airways.

A Boeing spokesperson referred TPG to the FAA.

In a statement, the FAA said that there will still be “some impacts” despite AT&T and Verizon restricting 5G near airports.

Overall, the latest developments come after a week of heated rhetoric between the telecom and aviation sides.

In a letter on Monday to Biden administration officials, airline CEOs warned of major disruptions if the 5G C-Band rollout continues.

“Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” the letter said.

In another statement Monday, United Airlines warned that nearly 15,000 of its flights annually — or about 41 a day — could be negatively affected.

On Tuesday, American Airlines COO David Seymour warned employees of significant operational disruptions.

“We anticipate American, along with all U.S. airlines and many foreign carriers providing service to U.S. destinations, will experience major operational disruptions as this new 5G technology operates on frequencies adjacent to the ones used by the radio altimeters on aircraft,” Seymour wrote.

More: Airline CEOs warn of ‘significant operational disruption’ if 5G implementation moves forward

The dispute centers on a key piece of technology found in airliners called a radio altimeter.

A radio (or radar) altimeter is a type of instrument that is used to precisely measure an aircraft’s height above the ground. This type of instrument is essential during low-visibility conditions because the data from it is essential for pilots to be able to conduct high-precision instrument approaches and even automatic landings, allowing operations to continue in little to no visibility. A 2020 study found that 5G C-Band, which operates on an adjacent set of the frequency spectrum, can interfere with this instrument. In addition, the FAA has warned that other flight deck instruments and safety systems that rely on radio altimeters could also be affected.

Featured photo by George Frey/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

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