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The Battle Over 5G Cell Service and Air Travel Safety

FAA finds that 9 in 10 commercial airplanes won’t have problems with cockpit equipment

male passenger turning off mobile phone on the airplane for flight safety before flying
Kritchanut Onmang / Alamy Stock Photo

The rollout of AT&T’s and Verizon’s new 5G cellphone service won’t affect 90 percent of the commercial airplanes in the United States, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.

The agency, working with airline manufacturers, determined that the planes’ altimeters operate on radio frequencies that won’t face interference from increasing use of 5G. Still, the effect on the remaining commercial fleet is not yet fully known.

Some older regional jets, such as the Embraer 145, don’t have approved radio altimeters, the FAA said in an email. Regional airlines operate the smaller jets, often in partnership with larger air carriers.

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In a Jan. 28 statement, the FAA said it had reached an agreement with AT&T and Verizon that will enable more aircraft to safely use key airports as 5G service expands nationwide. Earlier in January, AT&T and Verizon had agreed to limit the rollout of 5G around runways after the FAA warned that the cell service expansion could make flying unsafe.

“It is possible to safely and more precisely map the size and shape of the areas around airports where 5G signals are mitigated, shrinking the areas where wireless operators are deferring their antenna activations,” FAA officials said Friday.

Problems could happen if visibility is poor

The FAA had warned it would limit flights because it was concerned that 5G, which provides faster downloads and data connections than the nearly obsolete 3G or widespread 4G networks, could interfere with plane and helicopter radio altimeters, which determine the distance between aircraft and the ground.

Pilots on some aircraft would have to take extra measures when landing in bad weather, it said, and dozens of airports would be unable to accommodate low-visibility landings. The agency advised passengers to anticipate flight delays and cancellations.

Airline executives said they feared that the rollout and associated FAA restrictions would lead to chaos, stranding passengers in airports and delaying transport of goods by air. Carriers are already facing increasingly frustrated customers and problems with staff shortages as part of fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” said a letter signed by the chief executives of 10 major U.S. passenger and cargo airlines, who described the potential blow to the economy as “simply incalculable.” With the approach of Jan. 19, the delayed date for AT&T and Verizon to start using the disputed portion of the radio spectrum, several foreign airlines canceled flights to the U.S. because of worries about the safety issue.

In response, the wireless companies agreed to a two-mile 5G buffer zone around airports. Although the compromise largely solves the problem, the FAA warns that flights at some airports could still be affected, and it continues to advise passengers to check with their airline for the latest schedule.

The Biden administration praised the last-minute compromise.

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“My team has been engaging non-stop with the wireless carriers, airlines, and aviation equipment manufacturers to chart a path forward for 5G deployment and aviation to safely co-exist,” President Joe Biden said in a statement. “At my direction, they will continue to do so until we close the remaining gap and reach a permanent, workable solution.”

The background on 5G vs. aircraft

Last week’s news is the latest development in a standoff between the cellphone industry and the FAA over 5G. While questions about a possible effect on airplane safety have existed for years, the issue intensified last fall as wireless companies prepared to launch the new service, which extends cellular service to a higher radio frequency than existing 4G networks.

Because of the concerns, AT&T and Verizon twice delayed the rollout and agreed several weeks ago to set up temporary 5G buffer zones near many of the nation’s largest airports. But the FAA continued to worry about inadvertent interference from an increasing number of 5G smartphone users, and its mid-January agreement goes further to protect cockpit equipment.

By limiting 5G within two miles of airports, the two wireless companies say they have reduced the reach of their new service by about 10 percent. They both have spent tens of billions of dollars to purchase rights to use a narrow band of the radio spectrum, called the C-band, for 5G. Competitor T-Mobile operates its 5G service in a different part of the spectrum that doesn’t threaten to interfere with aircraft safety.

Assessing the risk to aviation

The cellular industry insists 5G poses no danger and has launched a website, 5GandAviation.com, to calm fears. It notes that 5G is being used in nearly 40 countries without reported problems, and U.S. regulators and others around the world have studied 5G for years.

“5G networks using C-band spectrum operate safely and without causing harmful interference to aviation equipment,” President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker of CTIA, a trade association for U.S. wireless communications companies, said in a statement. “Any delay in activating this spectrum risks America’s competitiveness and jeopardizes our ability to ensure global 5G leadership.”

Some engineers, though, say the risk to aircraft 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. The private organization develops standards for airline safety equipment and issued a report raising concerns about 5G interference. “This is a very serious thing.”

"A safe flight depends on many flight instruments that also work with radio frequency communication."

— Ludovic Chung-Sao, European Aviation Safety Agency

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, as 5G rolls out, Secen says he would get on a plane even if he were likely to face delays and cancellations because of poor weather.

“I would feel safe getting aboard,” he says. “The industry is built around safety, and it will do what it takes to maintain safety.”

Ed Waldman contributed to this story. Originally published Dec. 6, 2021, it has been updated to reflect new developments.

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