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FAA says more planes cleared from 5G concerns, but some disruptions reported

Jan. 20, 2022
4 min read
FAA says more planes cleared from 5G concerns, but some disruptions reported
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The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday said it had cleared approximately 78% of the U.S. commercial fleet for operations at airports impacted by 5G C-band, as some regional flights near San Francisco saw 5G-related disruptions.

Thursday's update saw the FAA add some jets popular with regional airlines to its list of cleared aircraft: "some" Embraer 170/190 models, one of the most popular mid-sized jets in the U.S. With that, there are 13 models of radio altimeters — the devices at the center of the 5G issue — that are cleared for use at airports that have 5G C-band towers installed nearby.

Notably, the list leaves off two other popular regional jets: the Canadair Regional Jet and the Embraer Regional Jet. The Airbus A220, a popular member of the Delta Air Lines and JetBlue fleets, is also left out for the time being.

In a statement, the agency said that it continues to make progress, though some radio altimeters might not be able to be cleared.

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"The FAA is working diligently to determine which remaining altimeters are reliable and accurate where 5G is deployed in the United States," the FAA said. "We anticipate some altimeters will be too susceptible to 5G interference."

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, other flight deck instruments and safety systems that rely on radio altimeters could be also be affected.

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

The FAA's move came hours after a number of SkyWest flights, including some Embraer 175s, experienced delays and diversions near San Francisco (SFO) due to low-visibility conditions. Flight tracking website showed multiple SkyWest flights in holding patterns to the north and south of the airport as other flights were landing normally. One of the flights, a United Express flight from Boise (BOI), diverted to Reno (RNO).

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In a statement, a SkyWest spokesperson confirmed the operational disruptions.

Weather conditions at some airports led to a small number of flight cancels and diversions this morning as a result of 5G implementation. We will process changes as soon as we receive the FAA’s mitigations for our E175 aircraft in low visibility conditions. We are hopeful the FAA will provide additional mitigation for the rest of our fleet soon. The potential for ongoing operational impact remains until full mitigations can be put into place for all commercial aircraft. As always, we will not compromise safety.

For other airlines, Thursday was business as usual. A spokesperson for Southwest Airlines told TPG that the airline was not experiencing any disruptions or cancelations due to 5G. Southwest operates a fleet made up only of Boeing 737s, a model that's mostly avoided the altimeter concerns.

On Tuesday, AT&T and Verizon, which provide 5G service in the C-band spectrum, voluntarily agreed to keep 5G C-band towers near certain airports turned off. Airlines have said that this agreement made a big difference.

"There are modest impacts still from the rollout of 5G," United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said during his airline's earnings call on Thursday. "They’re not nearly as significant as they were scheduled to be without the agreement that was reached."

Additional reporting by David Slotnick.

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