US airline CEOs warn of looming ‘catastrophic’ crisis over 5G

Airlines warn 5G services scheduled to launch on Wednesday could make a number of aircraft unusable.

A 5G cell tower in Orem, Utah, U.S.
United States airline chiefs warned in a letter that 'the nation's commerce will grind to a halt' unless urgent action is taken to clear major hubs to fly [File: George Frey/Bloomberg]

The chief executives of major passenger and cargo carriers in the United States on Monday warned of an impending “catastrophic” aviation crisis on Wednesday when AT&T and Verizon are set to deploy new 5G service.

The airlines warned the new C-Band 5G service could potentially make a significant number of wide-body aircraft unusable and “could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas.”

“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” wrote the chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and others.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has warned that potential interference could affect sensitive plane instruments such as altimeters and impact on low-visibility operations.

“This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays,” it cautioned.

Action is urgent, added the letter also signed by UPS Airlines, Atlas Air, JetBlue Airways and FedEx Express. “To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

The letter, which was seen by Reuters news agency, went to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel.

Airlines for America, the group that organized the letter, declined to comment. The government agencies did not immediately comment.

AT&T and Verizon, which won nearly all of the C-Band spectrum in an $80bn auction last year, on January 3 agreed to buffer zones around 50 airports to reduce interference risks and take other steps to cut potential interference for six months. They also agreed to delay deployment for two weeks until Wednesday, temporarily averting an aviation safety standoff.

The CEOs of major airlines and Boeing Chief Executive Dave Calhoun held a lengthy call with Buttigieg and Dickson on Sunday to warn of the looming crisis, officials told Reuters.

The airlines ask “that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles (3.2 km) of airport runways” at some key airports, and they say “immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies”.

The airlines added that flight restrictions will not be limited to poor weather operations: “Multiple modern safety systems on aircraft will be deemed unusable causing a much larger problem than what we knew… Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded.”

The carriers added they urge action to ensure “5G is deployed except when towers are too close to airport runways until the FAA can determine how that can be safely accomplished without catastrophic disruption”.

The FAA said on Sunday that it had cleared an estimated 45 percent of the US commercial plane fleet to perform low-visibility landings at many airports where 5G C-Band will be deployed starting on Wednesday. The airlines noted on Monday that the list did not include many large airports.

Source: Reuters