The chief executives of several major American passenger and cargo airlines have warned of an impending “catastrophic” crisis that could come in less than two days when telecommunications companies deploy a new 5G service.
The new C-Band 5G service, set to be rolled out by AT&T and Verizon in the US on Wednesday, could leave a significant number of widebody aircraft unusable, the airlines warned.
It could also “potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas” and cause “chaos” for US flights, they said.
“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the travelling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” wrote the chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and others.
5G: What is it, what will it do, and is it safe?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has warned potential interference could affect sensitive aeroplane instruments such as altimeters and significantly hamper 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,” the letter warned.
On Monday, several airlines were considering whether to cancel some international flights scheduled to arrive in the US on Wednesday.
“With the proposed restrictions at selected airports, the transportation industry is preparing for some service disruption. We are optimistic that we can work across industries and with government to finalise solutions that safely mitigate as many schedule impacts as possible,” plane maker Boeing said on Monday.
The letter calling for urgent action was also signed by UPS Airlines, Alaska Air, Atlas Air, JetBlue Airways and FedEx Express.
“To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt,” it claimed.
The FAA has said it “will continue to ensure that the travelling public is safe as wireless companies deploy 5G. The FAA continues to work with the aviation industry and wireless companies to try to limit 5G-related flight delays and cancellations”.
AT&T and Verizon have agreed to buffer zones around 50 airports to reduce interference risks.
They also agreed to delay deployment for two weeks until Wednesday after previously delaying the service by 30 days.
The telecommunications providers have argued C-Band 5G has been successfully deployed in around 40 other countries without causing issues by interfering with airlines.
What about the UK?
The UK CAA, the mobile phone industry and Ofcom released statements on 7 January in response to US concerns, saying they do not, at this stage, share the worries of those across the Atlantic.
A spokesperson for the CAA, which is the UK equivalent to the FAA, said: “We are aware of reports that suggest that the frequency band being used for 5G in a number of countries could potentially pose a risk of interference with aircraft radio altimeters.
“There have been no reported incidents of aircraft systems being affected by 5G transmissions in UK airspace, but we are nonetheless working with Ofcom and the Ministry of Defence to make sure that the deployment of 5G in the UK does not cause any technical problems for aircraft.”
Gareth Elliott, head of policy and communications at Mobile UK, which represents mobile networks, said: “The UK’s mobile network operators follow all health and safety guidelines and engage with a variety of industries on interference. Mobile operators are actively coordinating with the aviation authorities to ensure no interference in the UK.”
A spokesperson for Ofcom said: “We’re aware that the aviation sector is looking at this; we’ve done our own technical analysis and are yet to see any evidence that would give us cause for concern.”