Some travelers may face flight delays and cancellations in January because the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fears that new 5G cellphone service may interfere with cockpit safety instruments.
A plan to expand the high-frequency cell service on Jan. 5, 2022, led the FAA in December to announce that thousands of planes and helicopters will be prohibited from using guided and auto-landing systems at airports with 5G cell towers near the runway. These systems are typically used in poor weather with low visibility. The agency hasn’t announced which airports will be affected, saying it will release the information soon.
Although a cellphone has never definitively been shown to have caused a plane crash, airlines prohibit their use in flight because of the small chance that radio waves might disrupt safety equipment. Now there’s a new worry: that expanded 5G cell service, scheduled to come online in January, could make the problem more likely.
The 5G cell service, which provides faster downloads and data connections, is already available and in use around the country, but the planned expansion in 46 markets would represent a significant change because it operates in a different spectrum.
“It’s probably safe, but the FAA is insistent that it has to be proven to be safe,” Slotnick says.
The FAA’s concerns
The federal agency issued a bulletin in early November warning that the new 5G spectrum, called C-band, operates at frequencies near ones used by cockpit radar altimeters. The new order specifically applies to 6,800 airplanes and 1,600 helicopters with equipment that may be compromised.
“An unsafe condition exists that … could lead to loss of continued safe flight and landing,” the agency said in an Airworthiness Directive (a ruling to correct an unsafe condition). But it also added that it believes that 5G and aviation can safely coexist and that it’s working closely with the wireless industry and regulators to find a workable solution.
The Air Line Pilots Association applauded the FAA announcement and urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) — the agency that regulates the allotment of radio spectrum and had approved the use of 5G — to work out a safe solution with the U.S. cellular industry. Two congressional leaders, Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rick Larsen (D-WA), chairman of the Subcommittee on Aviation, have also urged the FCC to conduct a "robust risk assessment" before moving forward. "In aviation, we never roll the dice with safety," the members wrote in a letter to FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.
Major cell carriers Verizon and AT&T have already delayed their planned 5G expansion from early December to January in response to the FAA’s questions. They have also agreed to limit the power of tower signals for six months. Other carriers, including T-Mobile, aren’t as affected because most of their 5G service operates in a different spectrum that is of less concern to the FAA.
Join today and get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
Assessing the risk
The cellular industry insists there’s no danger, and has even launched a website, 5GandAviation.com, to calm fears. It notes that 5G is being used in nearly 40 countries without reported problems, and has been studied for years by U.S. regulators and others around the world.
“5G networks using C-band spectrum operate safely and without causing harmful interference to aviation equipment,” Meredith Attwell Baker, president and CEO of CTIA, an organization representing the U.S. wireless communications industry, said in a statement. “Any delay in activating this spectrum risks America’s competitiveness and jeopardizes our ability to ensure global 5G leadership.”
However, engineers say the risk is real. “The lack of an accident does not mean safety,” says Al Secen, vice president for aviation technology at the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, which develops standards for airline safety equipment and issued a report raising concerns about 5G interference. “This is a very serious thing.”
Ludovic Chung-Sao, who has worked on airline parts certification with the FAA and its European counterpart, agrees: “A safe flight depends on many flight instruments that also work with radio frequency communication. Wrong information on the flight instruments can lead to confusion in the cockpit, which can have a catastrophic impact. Would you risk it?”
Still, even if 5G rolls out, Secen says he would get on a plane in January, expecting he could be more likely to face weather delays and cancellations. “I would feel safe getting aboard,” he says. “The industry is built around safety, and it will do what it takes to maintain safety.”
Virginia native Larry Bleiberg is president of the Society of American Travel Writers, a frequent contributor to BBC Travel and the creator of CivilRightsTravel.com.