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Aviation industry warns of looming flight disruptions as 5G rolls out

▶ Watch Video: Airlines warn of new delays if dispute over 5G technology not resolved

The world’s biggest aviation rivals — plane makers Boeing and Airbus — are finding common ground over the industry’s 5G concerns. Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun and Airbus Americas CEO Jeffrey Knittel sent a letter this week urging the Biden Administration to delay the planned January 5 deployment of new 5G wireless service, fearing it could affect aviation safety.

The joint letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg calls for delaying AT&T and Verizon’s planned deployment of C-Band spectrum 5G Wireless, a source familiar with the letter told CBS News.

“5G interference could adversely affect the ability of aircraft to safely operate,” the letter said, adding it could have “an enormous negative impact on the aviation industry.”

The Federal Aviation Administration notified airlines they will not be allowed to use a piece of equipment, known as a radio altimeter, that helps pilots land in low visibility and bad weather starting January 5 at more than 40 of the nation’s busiest airports if the planned 5G activation continues as planned. Airlines warn that could lead to approximately 4% of flights in the U.S. being delayed, canceled or diverted daily. Airlines for America, the trade group representing the nation’s airlines, said if the FAA’s 5G directive was in effect in 2019 it would have affected about 345,000 passenger flights and 5,400 cargo flights.

Delta Chief Operating Officer John Laughter told senators at a recent hearing 5G is “the biggest issue facing us right now, we need to work together to resolve this.”

United CEO Scott Kirby called on the FAA and FCC to delay the implementation of 5G.

“We need the FAA and the FCC to sit in a room … and find out a way to do this without impacting aviation and aviation customers,” Kirby told CBS News following that hearing. “If we go back to decades old procedures and technology  for flying airplanes, cancel thousands of flights per day, hundreds of thousands  of customers, it will be a catastrophic failure of government.”

Their letter indicates Boeing and Airbus want the government to limit cellular transmissions around airports and other critical sites. 

AT&T and Verizon oppose further delays in activating the technology. Carriers have spent $80 billion dollars acquiring the bandwidth for the new highspeed wireless service. The companies previously agreed to delay the roll out of 5G in November and have agreed to limit signal strength around airports. The trade association representing the wireless industry accused the aviation industry of “fearmongering.”

“The spectrum band that the radio altimeters use is very close to the spectrum band for 5G. And that’s the concern is that there’s the potential for spurious signals from the 5G to interfere with the radio altimeter spectrum,” said CBS News Transportation Safety Analyst Robert Sumwalt, a former Chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and a retired 737 pilot. “This is a real problem that needs to be rectified because otherwise safety of flight can be compromised and the reliability of airlines to be able to get in, get people and packages to where they need to be.”

The union representing airline pilots disagreed in a letter to Senators Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington and Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican,  the top senators on the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

“The FAA and FCC are at a stalemate on how to resolve this issue, and that’s a big problem for passengers, shippers, and the American economy,” wrote Captain Joseph DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association. “Multiple countries around the world are deploying C-Band 5G in a way that has much less risk of interference with radar altimeters. The reasons include the fact that other countries are using reduced power-level limits or increasing the frequency spectrum spacing between 5G and radar altimeters.”

Following the outcry from airlines, manufacturers and pilots, the trade associations representing the two industries pledged Wednesday to work together towards a solution.

“The best technical experts from across both industries will be working collectively to identify a path forward, in coordination with the FAA and FCC,” said the joint statement. 



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