Airlines warn that 5G interference will wreak havoc with operations

Warning of impending chaos, airlines are once again imploring the Biden administration to halt the planned rollout of 5G broadband transmissions by AT&T and Verizon. 

“Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” wrote the CEOs of the 10 U.S. passenger and cargo carriers that are members of the trade group Airlines for America (A4A) in a Monday letter to the heads of the FAA, DOT and Federal Communications Commission and National Economic Council director Brian Deese. 

AT&T and Verizon, which didn’t comment for this story, are slated to begin 5G transmissions in the C-Band spectrum on Jan. 20. The C-Band encompasses a frequency range that is closer to frequencies used by aircraft than has previously been allowed in the U.S. 

On Jan. 13, the FAA issued notices directing pilots not to perform low-visibility landings at nearly 100 airports that could be impacted by C-Band transmission. The notices will apply to aircraft equipped with radio altimeters that have either proven not to be reliable within areas impacted by C-Band transmission or that have not yet been tested for such reliability. 

Altimeters, which are used to measure a plane’s distance from the ground when flying at altitudes of approximately 2,500 feet and below, are especially important during approaches and landings in bad weather conditions.

On Monday, the FAA cleared an estimated 45% of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landing at 48 of the 88 airports that will be most affected by 5G interference, the agency said. Approved aircraft include some Boeing 737s, 747s, 757s and 767s, as well as some Airbus A319s, A320s, A321s, A330s and A350s. 

No Boeing 777s or 787s had been approved, though the FAA said it expects to issue more approvals in the coming days. 

“Even with these new approvals, flights at some airports may still be affected,” the agency said. “The FAA also continues to work with manufacturers to understand how radar altimeter data is used in other flight-control systems. Passengers should check with their airlines if weather is forecast at a destination where 5G interference is possible.”

Two weeks ago, A4A agreed to an arrangement under which AT&T and Verizon would begin C-Band transmissions Wednesday, while implementing six-month protection zones around 50 of the most impacted airports. 

But in their Monday letter, the airline executives said that the harm caused by the deployments would be significantly worse than they had anticipated. 

One reason, they said, is that most of the 50 airports slated to have protection zones around them are nevertheless among the airports that the FAA has made subject to flight restrictions, beginning Jan. 20. 

Further, said the airline executives, the restrictions will not be limited to poor weather conditions because radio altimeters provide critical information to other aircraft safety systems.

“Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded,” the executives said. “In addition to the chaos caused domestically, this lack of usable widebody aircraft could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas.”

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