Airline industry heavyweights are warning of chaos if Verizon and AT&T proceed with a full-scale rollout of 5G on Wednesday.
The two telecoms have twice delayed the rollout, originally slated for Dec. 5, over warnings that cell tower emissions near airports could interfere with aircraft automated landing systems and altimeters.
In the latest down-to-the-wire warning to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, CEOs from the U.S.’ top airlines said that “immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies.”
The airlines are requesting that Verizon and AT&T delay flipping the switch on towers within two miles of the airports that haven’t been cleared by the FAA.
They said it is not worth compromising on safety, and they will be forced to ground flights if the Biden administration does not intervene.
“Unfortunately, this will result in not only hundreds of thousands of flight cancellations and disruptions for customers across the industry in 2022, but also the suspension of cargo flights into these locations, causing a negative ripple effect on an already fragile supply chain,” United Airlines said in a statement. “We implore the Biden administration to act quickly and apply the same common-sense solutions here that have clearly worked so well around the world.”
United said close to 15,000 flights could be impacted if the rollout happens on Wednesday.
“Given the short time frame and the exigency of this completely avoidable economic calamity, we respectfully request you support and take 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 safely accomplished without catastrophic disruption,” airline executives wrote in a letter Sunday to Mr. Buttigieg and FAA administrators.
The FAA said earlier Sunday that it had cleared approximately 45% of commercial aircraft to perform “low-visibility landings at many of the airports where 5G C-band will be deployed on Jan. 19.”
“Even with these new approvals, flights at some airports may still be affected,” the FAA said. “The FAA also continues to work with manufacturers to understand how radar altimeter data is used in other flight control systems.”
The back-and-forth extends a monthslong saga between aviation and telecom behemoths. After shelling out more than $81 billion in FCC service licenses in February, U.S. cellular providers are champing at the bit to light up the new frequency this week.
Verizon and AT&T delayed their Dec. 5 rollout of the new service for a month after the FAA issued a last-minute warning that cell tower emissions near airports could interfere with aircraft automated landing systems and altimeters, the instrument that shows a plane’s altitude.
A top trade group for the airline industry, Airlines for America, then filed an emergency request for the Federal Communications Commission to delay the rollout once again until Jan. 19.
In a joint statement last month from the trade groups representing the two industries, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association and Airlines for America, and the Aerospace Industries Association, announced that they would “work together to share the available data from all parties to identify the specific areas of concern for aviation.”
But airline executives say they still need more time, and that a premature rollout could spell disaster for the airlines.
“Despite the recent collaboration and data sharing between the telecommunications industry, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the aviation industry, commercial aviation in the United States is facing major disruption of the traveling and shipping public based on our evaluation of the data and discussions that have been ongoing to resolve the issue of how best to deploy 5G ‘C-band’ in a safe manner around U.S. airports,” airline executives said.
The cellular providers say the fears are overblown about 5G zapping flight altimeters and automated systems that help airplanes land, and that timely rollout of the technology is “critical to the U.S.’s global leadership.”
Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said in a November op-ed that further delay could cause real harm. She said a one-year delay would subtract $50 billion in economic growth, “just as our nation recovers and rebuilds from the pandemic.”
• Joseph Clark can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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