US airlines warn of “catastrophic” crisis days before 5G rollout

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US airlines have warned that the harm from 5G deployment across the US is substantially worse than originally anticipated, days before the new technology is set to be rolled out.

The airlines warned that the country faces "major disruption" based on their evaluation of data and discussions that have been ongoing on how to resolve the issue of how best to deploy 5G in a safe manner around US airports.

The chief executives of American Airlines, Delta, United, and others sent a letter to the FAA, Department of Transportation, FCC, and National Economic Council. They requested that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate two miles of airport runways at affected airports as defined by the FAA, Reuters reports.

The letter states that immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies. The companies also said that the harm that will result from 5G deployment on 19 January is substantially worse than they originally anticipated for two reasons.

The first is that most of the 50 large airports that were identified by the FAA for relief will still be subject to flight restrictions when 5G rolls out. The companies said the FAA was minimising the fact that they aren’t granting relief to airports that are used by most of the travelling and shipping public. They underlined that unless major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority will essentially be grounded. That could mean that on one day, over 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions, or delays.

The second reason is that multiple modern safety systems on aircraft will become unusable as radio altimeters, which may be affected by 5G, provide critical information to other safety and navigation systems in modern aeroplanes. The companies said that aircraft manufacturers have informed them that huge swathes of the operating fleet may need to be indefinitely grounded.

In addition to the chaos caused domestically, the companies warned that the lack of usable widebody aircraft could potentially strand tens of thousands of US citizens overseas.

“The ripple effects across both passenger and cargo operations, our workforce and the broader economy are simply incalculable,” said the companies. “Every one of the passenger and cargo carriers will be struggling to get people, shipments, planes and crews where they need to be. To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt," they said.


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The airlines requested that action be taken 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.

"With safety as its core mission, the FAA will continue to ensure that the traveling public is safe as wireless companies deploy 5G," a spokesperson from the FAA said to IT Pro. "The FAA continues to work with the aviation industry and wireless companies to try to limit 5G-related flight delays and cancellations."

IT Pro has contacted AT&T and Verizon for comment.

In a separate statement, United Airlines said the current 5G rollout would have a devastating impact on aviation, negatively affecting an estimated 1.25 million United passengers, at least 15,000 flights, and much-needed goods and cargo. The company said it wouldn’t compromise on safety, but pointed to how governments in other countries have successfully designed policies to ensure the safe deployment of 5G, and underlined it was simply asking the US government to do the same.

“Otherwise, the radio altimeters on certain aircraft, which provide information to other safety systems like autopilot, heads-up displays, terrain warning and pitch control, will be compromised and will result in significant restrictions on 787s, 777s, 737s and regional aircraft in major cities like Houston, Newark, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago,” the company said.

The rollout of 5G across the US was delayed for two weeks at the start of January, following concerns that the C-Band 5G spectrum could impact aircraft electronics, like radio altitude meters, which could disrupt flights. Network operators agreed to mitigate services around US airports for six months as a temporary safeguard.

Zach Marzouk

Zach Marzouk is a former ITPro, CloudPro, and ChannelPro staff writer, covering topics like security, privacy, worker rights, and startups, primarily in the Asia Pacific and the US regions. Zach joined ITPro in 2017 where he was introduced to the world of B2B technology as a junior staff writer, before he returned to Argentina in 2018, working in communications and as a copywriter. In 2021, he made his way back to ITPro as a staff writer during the pandemic, before joining the world of freelance in 2022.