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The Battle Over 5G Cell Service and Air Travel Safety

With the FAA and others concerned it could affect pilot navigation, mobile carriers agree to compromise

male passenger turning off mobile phone on the airplane for flight safety before flying

Kritchanut Onmang / Alamy Stock Photo

En español

Mobile carriers AT&T and Verizon have agreed to limit the rollout of the new 5G cellphone service that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) fears could make it unsafe to fly. The agreement was announced Tuesday — one day before the planned 5G rollout that some said could have led to massive airline traffic disruptions.

The FAA had warned it would limit flights because it was concerned that 5G, which provides faster downloads and data connections, could interfere with cockpit safety instruments. It said that pilots on some planes would have to take extra measures when landing in bad weather, and that dozens of airports would be unable to accommodate low-visibility landings. The agency also advised passengers to anticipate flight delays and cancellations.

Airline executives said they feared the rollout and associated FAA restrictions would lead to chaos, including passengers getting stranded in airports and more supply chain problems — both of which are already causing havoc due to staff shortages and COVID-19. “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 that described the potential blow to the economy as “simply incalculable.” Several foreign airlines even canceled flights to the U.S. due to 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 advised passengers to check with their airline for the latest schedule.

The Biden administration praised the last-minute compromise. “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 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.”

Background

The action is the latest wrinkle 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.

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 still believed there could be interference, and the new agreement is more wide-reaching.

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


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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.

This story has been updated to reflect new information. 

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