Potential 5G Interference Could Exacerbate Air Travel Difficulties Starting This Weekend

by Ethan Kim
5G interference

Air travelers, already experiencing a myriad of weather-induced flight delays this week, may face additional complications beginning Saturday due to the scheduled activation of new 5G systems near prominent airports.

Aviation specialists have long cautioned that 5G transmissions could cause disturbances with vital aircraft equipment, particularly radio-based devices crucial for calculating the altitude above ground during low-visibility landings.

Despite dire predictions of widespread flight groundings due to interference, no such incidents occurred last year when telecom firms initiated the new service. In response, these companies agreed to constrain their signal power in high-traffic airport vicinities, providing airlines with an additional year to upgrade their aircraft.

The head of the country’s most extensive pilots’ union acknowledged that flight crews could manage the 5G impact but criticized the distribution of wireless licenses, asserting it added unnecessary risk to aviation.

Pete Buttigieg, the Transportation Secretary, recently indicated to airlines that possible flight disturbances could arise due to a minor fraction of the national fleet being unequipped to guard against radio disruption.

However, most prominent U.S. airlines, including American, Southwest, Alaska, Frontier, and United, assert that all of their aircraft are equipped with radio altimeters that are immune to 5G interference.

Delta Air Lines is the major outlier, revealing that 190 of its aircraft, mostly smaller models, have yet to receive upgraded altimeters due to supplier limitations. Regardless, Delta does not anticipate any flight cancellations due to this issue, planning to strategically route these aircraft to minimize potential disruptions.

Specific Airbus jet models operated by Delta, including all A220s, most A319s and A320s, and some A321s, are yet to be retrofitted. Delta’s Boeing jets and all Delta Connection planes, operated by Endeavor Air, Republic Airways, and SkyWest Airlines, have received the necessary upgrades.

JetBlue, while not responding to direct inquiries, informed The Wall Street Journal that it plans to retrofit 17 smaller Airbus jets by October, with potential “limited impact” in Boston on certain days.

For their new 5G service, Verizon and AT&T, among other wireless carriers, utilize a section of the radio spectrum named C-Band, adjacent to frequencies used by radio altimeters. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted these licenses for the C-Band spectrum, dismissing potential interference concerns by citing a sufficient buffer between C-Band and altimeter frequencies.

Following objections by the Federal Aviation Administration in support of airlines, the wireless companies delayed their service rollout. A subsequent agreement, mediated by the Biden administration, saw wireless carriers consent to keep 5G signals turned off near about 50 busy airports, a delay set to end on Saturday.

Verizon and AT&T have yet to comment on their respective plans.

Buttigieg highlighted this impending deadline in a letter to the Airlines for America trade group leader last week, cautioning that only aircraft with upgraded altimeters would be permitted to land under low-visibility conditions. Despite over 80% of the U.S. fleet being retrofitted, a significant number of aircraft, including many foreign airlines, are still unupgraded.

Buttigieg suggested airlines with aircraft awaiting retrofitting should modify their schedules to prevent passenger inconvenience during adverse weather conditions, which could lead to increased delays and cancellations.

Airlines claim that the FAA’s sluggish approval of upgrading standards for radio altimeters and supply chain issues impeding manufacturers have added to the difficulties. Nicholas Calio, the Airlines for America leader, criticized the hurried push to modify aircraft “under telecommunications companies’ pressure.”

Jason Ambrosi, a Delta pilot and the Air Line Pilots Association president, blamed the FCC for issuing 5G licenses without involving aviation stakeholders, thereby “increasing risk in the world’s safest aviation system.” However, he remains confident that they will effectively manage the 5G impacts.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about 5G interference

What potential disruptions could arise in air travel due to 5G wireless signals near airports?

Air travel could experience disruptions such as flight delays and cancellations if 5G wireless signals interfere with critical aviation equipment, particularly radio altimeters used during low-visibility landings.

Have airlines taken measures to address the potential interference?

Most major U.S. airlines claim to be prepared for 5G interference by equipping their aircraft with upgraded altimeters that are protected against such disruptions. However, some airlines, like Delta Air Lines, still have a portion of their fleet awaiting altimeter retrofits.

What actions have been taken to mitigate the impact of 5G interference?

To address the concerns, wireless carriers agreed to limit the power of 5G signals around busy airports, granting airlines an additional year to upgrade their planes. However, the postponement is set to end soon, and airlines are urged to have retrofitted altimeters to ensure safe operations during low-visibility conditions.

Are there any airlines that remain at higher risk of disruptions?

Delta Air Lines is an exception, as it has a significant number of planes, particularly smaller Airbus models, that have yet to receive altimeter upgrades due to supply constraints. The airline, however, plans to carefully route these planes to minimize potential flight cancellations or diversions in low-visibility areas.

How do wireless carriers and aviation authorities justify the coexistence of 5G and aviation systems?

Wireless carriers, like Verizon and AT&T, utilize the C-Band spectrum for their 5G service, which is adjacent to frequencies used by radio altimeters. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted licenses and dismissed interference concerns, citing a sufficient buffer between C-Band and altimeter frequencies. Aviation authorities have raised objections and have sought to delay 5G signals near certain airports to ensure safety.

What is the percentage of aircraft that have been retrofitted with upgraded altimeters?

According to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, more than 80% of the U.S. fleet has been retrofitted with altimeters to protect against radio interference. However, a significant number of planes, including those operated by foreign airlines, are still awaiting the necessary upgrades, potentially leading to increased delays and cancellations during adverse weather conditions.

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AvidReader94 July 1, 2023 - 11:14 am

omg, i can’t believe 5g could mess up flights! who would’ve thought? better hope those airlines upgraded their planes, or it’s gonna be a mess!

AvGeek777 July 1, 2023 - 11:21 am

it’s crazy to think that something like 5G could mess with aviation equipment. i hope the FAA and wireless carriers find a solution to this problem ASAP!

FlyHighSky July 1, 2023 - 11:01 pm

wow, this is like adding fuel to the fire! airports already have so many delays due to weather, now 5G interference too? hope they sort it out soon!

TravelBug123 July 2, 2023 - 2:36 am

so, airlines were given extra time to upgrade their planes, but looks like some still haven’t done it! come on, guys, get your act together, we don’t want more cancellations!

Jetsetter23 July 2, 2023 - 5:53 am

seriously, why didn’t they consult with aviation experts before granting those 5G licenses? safety should come first, not just rushing to get new tech. fingers crossed for minimal disruptions!


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