Airlines brace for flight restrictions in 5G deadlock

Airlines have started planning for possible flight disruptions to a new, fifth-generation cellular service that is expected to go live early next year, industry officials have said.

The first actions taken by the airlines are in response to an order from the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this month. The directive outlines potential bad-weather landing restrictions in up to 46 of the country’s largest metropolitan areas, where the new wireless service is expected to roll out from January 5.

The planning comes as U.S. regulators consider two proposals – one from the telecommunications industry and one from the aviation industry – to protect planes from potential 5G interference with substation security systems. piloting. Common in modern air travel, they help planes land in bad weather, prevent crashes, and avoid mid-air collisions.

The wireless industry has said the planned service poses no risk to aircraft, while the Federal Aviation Administration has said it is concerned that the frequencies used by cellular signals could disrupt flight deck systems.

Airlines are in the middle of the dispute. “If there are weather conditions, if there are high winds, if the visibility is not good because of the smog, you cannot use this equipment”, United Airlines Holdings Inc.

UAL 1.82%

General manager Scott Kirby told reporters on December 15. “You can’t land at airports – Chicago O’Hare, Atlanta, Detroit – just think about what that means. It cannot be the result.

As they work out various scenarios, airlines await clarification from the FAA on the extent or target of the landing restrictions – and where – from Jan.5, industry officials said. About a week before that date, the FAA is expected to issue warnings to pilots specifying which airports will be subject to restrictions, people familiar with the matter said.

Aviation safety regulators analyzed data from cell towers and planes to determine where 5G signals could potentially interfere with planes, people familiar with the matter said.

Despite the unknowns, airlines are weighing what the canceled or hijacked flights might mean for fuel, aircraft and crew requirements, said George Paul, vice president of technical services at the National Air Carrier Association, which represents air carriers. small freight and passenger airlines.

“It’s like a bad hurricane – you don’t know where it’s going to hit until it gets a bit close,” Paul said.

The airline’s early planning is the result of a long-standing dispute between US telecommunications and aviation regulators, which have been out of sync for over a year.

The Federal Communications Commission auctioned off parts of the 5G-compatible frequencies, also known as the C-band, about a year ago. Top AT&T Auction Winners Inc.

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and Verizon Communications Inc.

VZ 0.80%

were allowed to start offering some of the fastest cellular services earlier this month, but the companies delayed their rollout until Jan. 5 to address still unresolved FAA concerns. The companies also pledged to reduce the strength of C-band signals, especially near airport runways, for an additional six months.

Flight limits could make it difficult for the US airline industry to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic. Domestic travel has rebounded and airlines are betting on an increase in demand for international flights in the summer of 2022. While some carriers may need to reduce their travel plans because of Boeing Co.

BA 0.96%

Delays in the delivery of his 787 Dreamliner, Mr Kirby, speaking at a Senate hearing on December 15, called the possible 5G restrictions “the biggest and most damaging potential problem we face.”

Officials in the US telecommunications industry have disputed claims about the security risks of the new technology. “The airline industry’s fear campaign is based on completely discredited information and deliberate distortions of the facts,” said Nick Ludlum, spokesperson for the wireless industry group CTIA. “We will launch this service in January with the most comprehensive set of safeguards in the world.”

The scope of any US flight restrictions should largely depend on the 5G buffer zones around airports.


Mario Tama / Getty Images

Regulators disagree over competing proposals from the U.S. aviation and telecommunications industries to limit new 5G signals near airports. At a high-level meeting on Wednesday that included Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FCC President Jessica Rosenworcel, officials discussed the two industries’ proposals to create buffer zones around airports, people close to them said. folder.

Mr Buttigieg has asked the FCC to review the airline industry’s proposal, some of those people said. FCC officials called the proposal a non-starter that would amount to a non-5G option, another person familiar with the meeting said.

Ms. Rosenworcel of the FCC said she believes officials will find a solution to enable 5G to be deployed quickly and safely. “I have confidence in the mitigation measures proposed by the wireless industry,” she told a press conference on December 14.

An FAA spokesperson said the regulator continues to work with other federal agencies and wireless companies so that “5G C-band and aviation can safely coexist.”

“It’s like a bad hurricane – you don’t know where it’s going to hit until it gets a little closer. “

– George Paul, Vice President of Technical Services, National Air Carrier Association

Airlines are also looking to aerospace manufacturers for advice.

Boeing, which sometimes makes its own safety recommendations, is assessing potential risks not addressed by the FAA, people familiar with the matter said.

Boeing engineers looked at takeoff issues and pilots’ responses to possible 5G interference, one of the people said.

European aircraft maker Airbus SE said it was working with its regulators and the FAA to provide guidance to airlines. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency, the FAA’s counterpart, does not view the 5G problem with as much concern as US regulators, a person close to the regulator said, but is aware of unconfirmed reports of 5G interference and responds to inquiries from concerns. Airlines companies.

Autopilot is used on almost all flights, but it is not clear what it does. American Airlines Captain Sonya Laxo explains the technology behind autopilot, how it’s used, and why it’s not really “automatic”. Photographic illustration: Laura Kammermann

The scope of any US flight restrictions should largely depend on the 5G buffer zones around airports. These proposed protections include reduced 5G signal strengths and limits on antennas pointed in certain directions to avoid potential interference with aircraft radar altimeters, which measure the distance between the aircraft and the ground.

A preliminary FAA analysis found that the airline industry’s proposal would likely avoid significant disruption to U.S. air traffic, people familiar with the matter said. The agency’s initial analyzes of the telecommunications industry’s proposal suggest it could lead to widespread cancellations and hijackings in bad weather, the people said.

The FAA may also determine that certain radar altimeters pose no risk of interference, exempting aircraft equipped with them from any flight restrictions, according to a senior White House official involved in mediating the dispute.

Larger buffer zones at airports would prevent cell carriers, which have spent $ 81 billion on C-band licenses, from reaching so many customers in some of the often densely populated cities they serve.

Speaking at the recent Senate hearing, Delta Air Lines Inc.

DAL 2.12%

Chief Operating Officer John Laughter said: “The safety issues with planes and aviation are very real, and I also know there is a solution here.”

Write to Andrew Tangel at [email protected] and Drew FitzGerald at [email protected]

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