UPDATE – Chief executive officers of eleven US airlines urgently request to exclude airports and a two mile-zone around them of any communication systems using 5G. They fear safety issues and severe travel disruptions if 5G is implemented on January 19, they say in a letter from Airlines for America dated January 17. Meanwhile, a number of international airlines have suspended flights to the US until further notice. US airlines warn of imminent 5G introduction.
The A4A letter is addressed to Secretary of Transportation, Pete Buttigieg, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, Director Brian Deese of the National Economic Council, and Jessica Rosenworcel, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
The implementation of 5G has been the topic of much debate between the aviation and communications industries and the FAA, especially since December. On January 3, the FAA and wireless companies AT&T and Verizon agreed to voluntarily delay the implementation of 5G while seeking solutions for the safety issues that were addressed by the airline industry.
Airlines claim that the strong frequency of the C-band can disrupt radio altimeters, potentially endangering the safety of an aircraft, especially during the safety-critical phase of approach and landing and take-offs. While 5G is in use elsewhere in the world without causing safety issues, specialists point out an important difference between systems used there and in the US. Elsewhere, the 5G antennas are facing downwards to the ground whereas US systems use antennas that are perpendicular and facing straight into the systems onboard aircraft.
Boeing 787 systems could be affected by 5G
The FAA said on January 16 that it had approved two radio altimeter models that are installed on a variety of Boeing and Airbus aircraft. The only exception is the Boeing 787, of which 5g interference with the radio altimeter could prevent landing and braking systems from transitioning to landing mode. This could prevent a 787 from stopping in time on a wet runway caused by snow or rain, the FAA said on January 14. The agency issued an Airworthiness Notification to 787 operators that covers 137 aircraft in the US and 1.010 worldwide.
Missing from the list of aircraft models with approved radio altimeters are the Boeing 777 and Airbus A380 and various regional aircraft types like the Embraer E-jets and Bombardier CRJs United Airlines says in a letter to staff that the altimeter issue will result in “significant restrictions on 787s, 777s, 737s, and regional aircraft in major cities like Houston, New York Newark, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago” as safety systems are impacted, like the autopilot, heads-up display, terrain warning, and pitch control.
Installation of 5G antennas in the US (AT&T)
Although the FAA has issued some 1.500 Notices To Airmen (NOTAMs), it says that the approval of the altimeters on most aircraft models opens the use of runways at 48 of 88 airports to low-visibility landings thanks to the introduction of 5G, the FAA says. Without the new system, none of the airports have been available for these kinds of landings. On January 7, the agency issued a list of fifty airports that from January 19 will have a buffer zone, while many airports are currently unaffected as they are in an area where 5G will not be rolled out now.
Airlines fear severe disruptions
Still, in their January 17 letter, the airlines warn of major schedule disruptions when 5G is implemented near airports. “Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded. In addition to the chaos caused domestically, this lack of usable widebody aircraft could potentially strand ten thousand Americans overseas. (…) Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain, and delivery of needed medical supplies.” A4A warns that US commerce will grind to a halt if flights are disrupted and call for “ample time” for discussions that allow the safe implementation of the C-band without hurting aviation safety.
The airline CEO call for support and “whatever action necessary to ensure that 5G is deployed except when towers are too close to airport runways until the FAA can determine how that can be accomplished without catastrophic disruption.”
The 5G debate also has become political, with the Chair of the House Committee of Transportation, Peter DeFazio, and the Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation, Rick Larsen, interfering by issuing a statement. Democrat DeFazio blames the Trump administration for having allowed the Federal Communications Commission to sell the C-band to wireless companies and introduce 5G at the expense of aviation safety. He also points out that 5G has been implemented elsewhere only after taking precautionary safety measures, like reduced power levels, extensive exclusion zones around airports, limiting the directional tilts of antennas, and changing frequencies of the C-band.
Ahead of January 19, various US airlines have warned their customers and staff about the potential implications of the introduction of 5G. United Airlines says disruptions could affect some 1.25 million of its customers and 15.000 flights as well as disrupt cargo operations.
International airlines suspend services
Meanwhile, a number of international airlines said on January 18 that they would suspend or change services to some US destinations from the 19th until further notice. Among them are Japan Airlines, All Nippon Airways, Air India, and Emirates. In a statement, ANA cites flight restrictions announced by Boeing on all airlines operating the Boeing 777. It also canceled flights “as the Boeing 787 aircraft were not able to be arranged.” British Airways also has rescheduled services and aircraft types.
Air India says it has curtailed and revised US operations “with change in aircraft type from 19th January 2022.” Emirates said it will suspend services to Boston, Chicago, Dallas Forth-Worth, Houston, Miami, New York Newark, Orlando, San Francisco, and Seattle. All are operated by the 777. Flights to New York JFK, Los Angeles, and Washington, some of them by A380, continue to be operated as scheduled.
Later on January 18, AT&T and Verizon announced that they would delay the deployment of 5G at a number of airports. But they criticized the lack of progress made by the FAA in safely deploying 5G around US airports and referred to forty other countries where this has been successfully done.
In a statement, Airlines for America thanked the wireless companies: “We appreciate AT&T and Verizon’s willingness to ensure the continuation of service for the traveling and shipping public, avert disruption to the National Airspace System (NAS) and provide time to implement mitigations. We have not yet seen the details of the agreements. However, this pause provides the opportunity to ensure all stakeholders, consumers, and the U.S. economy are served in the long run.”
Secretary Buttigieg released a statement via the FAA, saying: “We recognize the importance of expanding 5G, and we appreciate the wireless companies working with us to protect the flying public and the country’s supply chain. The complex US airspace leads the world in safety because of our high standards for aviation, and we will maintain this commitment as wireless companies deploy 5G.”
Active as a journalist since 1987, with a background in newspapers, magazines, and a regional news station, Richard has been covering commercial aviation on a freelance basis since late 2016.
In 2022, he has gone full-time freelance. Richard has been contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He is also writing for Airliner World and Aviation News. From January 2023, he will add a part-time role with Dutch website and magazine Luchtvaartnieuws. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.