US airline chiefs warn 5G could cause ‘catastrophic’ flight disruption and strand thousands of Americans

·3 min read
File: Travelers watch planes on the tarmac near checking in counters at Ronald Reagan International Airport in Washington, DC on 27 December 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)
File: Travelers watch planes on the tarmac near checking in counters at Ronald Reagan International Airport in Washington, DC on 27 December 2021 (AFP via Getty Images)

Less than 36 hours before Verizon and AT&T are set to deploy new 5G services, the top executives of major passenger and cargo carriers in the nation warned against an impending “catastrophic” aviation crisis.

The airline industry leaders said in a letter the deployment of new 5G mobile internet technology could lead to the grounding of a number of flights due to interference from the technology, "potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas" and lead to a "chaos" for US flights.

"We are writing with urgency to request that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles of airport runways as defined by the FAA," wrote chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and six other passenger and cargo carriers, reported AFP.

In the letter addressed to transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg and other top federal officials, the top executives warned that "unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded."

The high-speed 5G internet uses so-called C-band frequencies close to those used by aircraft to measure their altitude, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warning potential interference could affect sensitive airplane instruments such as altimeters and significantly hamper low-visibility operations.

“This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays," the letter cautioned.

The two telecommunication companies argued that the airlines had years to upgrade the equipment that might be directly affected, reported the New York Times.

While some airlines on Monday were considering canceling some of the international flights scheduled to arrive on Wednesday, the chairman of the House Transportation Committee and the head of an aviation subcommittee have asked AT&T and Verizon to consider delaying some 5G deployments scheduled for Wednesday, around some US airport runways, reported AFP.

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

Boeing on Monday said: "With the proposed restrictions at selected airports, the transportation industry is preparing for some service disruption. We are optimistic that we can work across industries and with the government to finalise solutions that safely mitigate as many schedule impacts as possible.”

AT&T and Verizon had won nearly all of the C-band spectrum in an $80bn auction last year. Since then, they have agreed to delay the launch of their technology twice, due to warnings from airlines companies.

Under an agreement with the telecom companies on 3 January, the FAA-designated 50 airports that will have buffer zones to reduce interference. In these zones, companies will turn off 5G transmitter or make changes to limit potential interference through early July.

These 50 airports include New York City’s LaGuardia, JFK and Newark Liberty, O’Hare and Midway in Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth International, Bush Intercontinental in Houston, reported Associated Press

The telecom companies also agreed to delay the deployment for two weeks until Wednesday, after previously delaying service by 30 days.

FAA in a statement to New York Times said that it “will continue to keep the traveling public safe as wireless companies deploy 5G”, adding that it will work with the aviation industry and telecom companies “to try and limit 5G-related flight delays and cancellations,”

Spokespersons for AT&T and Verizon declined to comment.

Additional reporting from wires

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