Airlines warn of delays as operators will not postpone 5G network launch.

Follow us on social media and always stay updated

Airlines warned of increased flight delays after AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. ignored a U.S. government request to postpone a new 5G service that aviation concerns say puts safety at risk because it can interfere with aircraft electronics.

The two mobile companies said Sunday that the request by Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Steve Dickson, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), would be “to the detriment of” millions of mobile customers. The companies said they may offer a six-month pause near some airports, Bloomberg reported.

The FAA and DOT were considering the response Sunday, but airlines and regulators predicted substantial impacts to flight schedules if there are not some adjustments to the 5G service that will begin Jan. 5. The trade group Airlines for America, applying worst-case scenarios, said there could be as many as 350,000 commercial flights impacted per year at a cost of $2.1 billion.

“Without proper mitigations, 5G deployment around airports could disrupt up to 345,000 passenger flights, affecting 32 million travelers, plus 5,400 cargo flights each year in the form of delays, diversions or cancellations,” Airlines for America said in a statement Sunday.

The new 5G signals would use a set of radio waves newly available to mobile communications providers. The frequencies are close to those used by altitude-sensing radar altimeters. Airlines and aircraft manufacturers have said that creates a possibility of interference that could leave some landings unsafe.

The wireless industry said power levels are low enough to avoid interference and the gap between frequencies is large enough to ensure safety. On Sunday, operators singled out the launch of 5G as a priority, citing a race with China to offer widespread high-speed mobile broadband and a growing demand for wireless services amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

The stakes are high for both industries. The wireless industry paid more than $80 billion in an auction for access to the frequencies in question, and AT&T and Verizon will rely on them for network upgrades to compete with T-Mobile US Inc. in providing the next generation of fast mobile broadband.

In a letter Friday, Buttigieg and Dickson asked wireless carriers for a delay of up to two weeks. Officials forecast possible “widespread and unacceptable disruption” to air traffic as planes avoid airports bathed in 5G signals that could affect electronic devices used during landings.

The wireless carriers responded Sunday in a letter from each company’s CEO: Verizon’s Hans Vestberg and AT&T’s John Stankey.

“Your proposed framework requests that we agree to transfer oversight of our companies’ multibillion-dollar investment in 50 unnamed metropolitan areas that represent the majority of the U.S. population to the FAA for an indeterminate number of months or years,” Vestberg and Stankey wrote. “Worse, the proposal is aimed at just two companies.”

The wireless executives said accepting the proposal would be “an irresponsible abdication of the operational control required to deploy world-class, globally competitive communications networks.”

Earlier, AT&T and Verizon agreed to reduce the strength of their 5G signals and set a 30-day delay, delaying the start of service beginning in December.

Exclusion zones

The wireless providers in their joint letter Sunday said they may be willing to commit to a six-month pause on deployment near certain airports to be selected in negotiations with U.S. officials and the aviation industry.

Some sort of restriction on 5G service near runways could limit impacts and give industry groups and regulators more time to study the potential for interference. In their letter Friday, Buttigieg and Dickson also suggested limiting service near unspecified “priority airports.”

FAA and DOT officials were reviewing the companies’ response and “U.S. aviation safety standards will guide our next actions,” the FAA said in an emailed statement.

The FAA and industry groups, and an arm of the United Nations, have expressed concerns about the use of the airwaves since 2015, the U.S. aviation regulator said Sunday.

AT&T and Verizon executives in Sunday’s letter said that if aviation interests don’t escalate their campaign against the new signals, they would commit to not deploying towers near certain airports for six months. The offer is modeled after exclusion zones at airports in France, where 5G service is operating on similar frequencies and U.S. planes have landed.

Executives from both companies said they are “committed to continuing” cooperation with transportation interests “on the condition that the FAA and the aviation industry commit to doing the same without escalating their complaints, unfounded as they are, elsewhere.”

Emergency request

Aviation groups have argued that the power levels and frequencies approved in other nations, including France, are not comparable to the U.S.

The trade group Airlines for America, in an emergency petition last week, asked the Federal Communications Commission to delay the planned 5G deployment. The trade group CTIA representing wireless interests told the FCC to reject the request.

“We are optimistic that by working together we can advance the wireless economy and ensure aviation safety,” an FCC spokesman said in an email Sunday.

On Sunday, the largest U.S. union representing cabin crews, the Air Line Pilots Association, filed a letter saying it supported A4A’s request to the FCC to postpone service. The FCC’s action is “urgently needed” because time is so short, the union said.

U.S. transportation officials in their Friday letter requested a delay of “no more than two weeks.” During that time, the FAA and the aviation industry would identify airports where a buffer zone would allow flights to continue safely.

By Todd Shields and Alan Levin

Related Topics