The heads of American Airlines and United have both claimed that the drama around 5G technology was over – despite the head of Emirates warning that a ‘long-term resolution’ is now needed.
AT&T and Verizon launched their 5G network across America on Wednesday morning, switching on 4,500 towers to bring faster wireless to their customers. They had to hold back on ten percent of the towers – around 500 – that are near airports because the frequencies the towers emit could interfere with the signal on some planes.
Eighty-eight airports now have buffers to protect against it but some major airports like Boston and Memphis do not. In the most recent FAA announcement on Wednesday afternoon, the government said 62 percent of flights could operate safely – leaving nearly half to reschedule.
On Wednesday, some airline passengers who were unaware of the fiasco showed up at airports ready to board their flights but were told they had been canceled.
On Thursday, the CEOs of the U.S. airlines insisted that the situation was under control, and that the Biden administration had largely resolved the issue.
Both airlines are among eight to have $1.1 billion in contracts with the federal government to provide transport for officials.
Doug Parker (left), CEO of American Airlines, and Scott Kirby (right), head of United, both said they think the worst of the 5G drama is over
A cellular tower stands as a United Airlines Boeing 787 Dreamliner airplane lands at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX)
‘It’s taken a while to get to the right spot, but I feel like we’re in the right spot,’ said Doug Parker, the CEO of American Airlines, in a call with investors on Thursday morning.
‘I don’t think you’re going to see any material disruption going forward because of this.’
The CEO of United, Scott Kirby, agreed.
‘While I wish it happened earlier, the good news is we now have everyone engaged, the FAA and DOT at the highest levels, the aircraft manufacturers, airlines and the telecoms,’ said Kirby.
‘While we don’t have a final resolution quite yet, I’m confident we’ll get there.’
Yet the president of Emirates said the 5G fiasco was the ‘most delinquent, irresponsible’ mess he has seen in his 50-year aviation career and blamed it on Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who he says knew about the impending chaos but failed to warn anyone in time to stop it.
Sir Tim Clark, the president of Dubai-based Emirates, appeared on CNN Wednesday and said that U.S. airlines knew about the risks of 5G on the Boeing 777 before the rest of the world’s airlines.
He said it forced Emirates and other international airlines to scramble to cancel flights – before bringing them back once FAA gave approval for more types of planes to land in low visibility near 5G signals, including the Boeing 777.
‘Let the truth be known, we were not aware of this until yesterday morning to the extent that it was going to compromise the safety of operation of our aircraft and just about every other 777 operator to and from the United States and within the United States. It came to a head, it was known by the US operators probably a little bit more than we knew.
‘We have evidence of letters being written to the Secretary of Transport in the US government alerting that group to what was likely to happen and its consequences.
‘I need to be as candid as I normally am and say this is one of the most delinquent, utterly irresponsible issues, I’ve seen in my aviation career because it involves organs of government, manufacturers, science.’
Airlines are concerned that the use of that technology near airports could interfere with aircraft radar altimeters – an instrument that tells pilots how high their plane is off the ground. Altimeters are crucial for landing airplanes in low-visibility conditions.
As a result, the federal government has shut down some of the communications towers near the airports which do not have ‘buffers’ preventing the impact of 5G, to avoid any potential interference.
Aviation officials fear that 5G signals near airports could interfere with certain airplane instruments, including the radio altimeter used to gauge altitude
Parker, speaking to CNBC on Thursday morning, said he was optimistic
This graphic shows how the wireless spectrum used by 5G networks could interfere with altimeters, which measure a plane’s altitude and is especially important for low-visibility operations. The CEOs of the airlines have asked officials that the 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles of airport runways at some key airports
‘The technical experts that are working on it tell us it’s really not that complicated once they all are able to share information and work on it,’ Parker said Thursday.
‘So they seem encouraged that we’ll be able to address this in a way that allows for full deployment of 5G, including near airports.
‘I don’t expect until we get to the point that everyone is really comfortable that you’ll see anything turned on near airports, because no one wants to go through this again.’
Communications companies have been infuriated that the system was not resolved in advance.
‘We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner,’ AT&T spokesperson Megan Ketterer.
Republicans have blamed Buttigieg and the administration for the botched rollout of 5G, with GOP members of transportation and technology-related congressional panels releasing a joint statement on Wednesday claiming the Biden administration ‘sleepwalked’ the process.
‘The Biden administration has failed to provide any leadership to find a solution to this spectrum issue,’ the statement reads.
‘The U.S. government has hardworking experts who can address any outstanding technical issues, but instead of leading, the White House has sleepwalked through this botched process.
‘By lurching from one arbitrary deadline to the next with no clear plan or strategy for resolution, this Administration’s negligence continues to delay finding a lasting solution that improves our everyday wireless communication while protecting aviation safety.’
The chaos comes as all airlines are posting sombre financial updates amid the pandemic.
American, United and Delta alone have reported combined losses of $36.5 billion, excluding special items since the start of 2020. Southwest, which had gone 47 years without posting an annual loss, is about to report its second straight annual loss next week.
American said Thursday that small and medium business travel was roughly 80 percent of where it stood pre-pandemic, and travel by large corporate customers was still down 60 percent.
Yet the airlines say bookings are up for this year’s spring break period and they remain hopeful for a strong summer.
Most are projecting a return to profitability in 2022.
Leisure domestic travel is almost back to pre-pandemic levels, even though business travel is still down from where it was before the pandemic.
HOW DOES 5G AFFECT PLANES?
AT&T and Verizon have spent tens of billions of dollars to license the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz frequency range for the new high-speed C-Band 5G service.
The C-band is a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum in the microwave range of frequencies ranging from 4.0 to 8.0 gigahertz (GHz), although the US Federal Communications Commission has designated 3.7-4.2 GHz as C band too.
The problem is that wireless spectrum used by 5G networks could interfere with radio altimeters, which measure a plane’s altitude – especially important for low-visibility operations.
Airlines fear that C-band 5G signals will disrupt planes’ navigation systems, particularly those used in bad weather.
This interference with radio altimeters, which measure a plane’s altitude, could lead to the loss of radar altitude information or, worse, incorrect radar altitude information unknowingly being generated, they say.
It is not seen as a problem in Britain or Europe, according to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, Ofcom and EU Aviation Safety Authority.
All three insist there is no evidence 5G interferes with aircraft systems.
However, in Europe 5G networks work in the 3.4-3.8GHz spectrum so regulators on this side of the Atlantic don’t appear as concerned about it being close to the 4.2-4.4GHz band for radio altimeters.
It seems the basis for US airlines’ fears is that mobile networks’ traffic from the top edge of 3.98GHz might bleed into the neighbouring altimeter band.
‘The issue is that the C-band frequency used for 5G in the US is a little bit close to the frequencies used by altimeters,’ Roslyn Layton, vice president at Strand Consult, told Tech Monitor.
The radio altimeter is a critical aviation safety technology that indicates the airplane’s height and supports safe landing.
It operates in the 4.2-4.4 GHz spectrum band; cell phones are currently not permitted to operate in that band or any nearby band to prevent interference.
However, if telecommunication authorities reallocate the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for 5G, the risk of interference could increase.
The airlines want 5G signals to be excluded from ‘the approximate two miles of airport runways at affected airports as defined by the FAA on 19 January 2022’.
This would ensure that no airplanes are affected by the 5G interference, they say.
There have been fatal accidents associated with incorrect radar altitude, most recently Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 in Amsterdam in 2009.
The FAA has warned that potential interference could affect sensitive airplane instruments such as altimeters and make an impact on low-visibility operations.
So this threat could compromise key safety systems and result in suspended passenger and cargo flights.
For passengers, flights may be cancelled or have to be diverted to other airports if 5G towers are deployed too close to airport runways.
But most aviation regulators are content the risks posed by 5G to planes are low, according to Layton.
‘This whole thing is unhelpful for the world’s airport regulators,’ she said. ‘They have blessed this technology years ago, so what does it look like when the FAA all of sudden says ‘there’s a problem’? It’s really inconvenient and a bit embarrassing.’
AT&T and Verizon have agreed to buffer zones around 50 airports to reduce interference risks.
In the UK, Ofcom said the country had had 5G deployments and other services in the bands near to radio altimeters for years and there have been no known cases of interference.
Similarly, other countries are already using these frequencies for 5G and other wireless services with no reported incidents of interference to aviation equipment.
The issue in the US is that it’s about to deploy these services, so there’s concerns of the effects deployment may have.