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Airlines Warn of ‘Catastrophic Disruptions’ in 5G Rollout

·3-min read

(Bloomberg) -- A trade association representing major U.S. airlines asked Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the nation’s top communications and aviation regulators to prevent wireless carriers from implementing 5G services close to airports.

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Airlines for America warned in a letter Monday that the traveling and shipping public could see “catastrophic disruptions” if the new C-band frequencies were put into service within two miles of where aircraft fly. The association said it was willing to work with the government and carriers to find a mutually agreeable solution.

Wireless carriers including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. reached an agreement with federal regulators earlier this month to launch the new service on Jan. 19. Airlines are worried the signals could interfere with instruments that measure an aircraft’s altitude, after the Federal Aviation Administration limited certain flights landing near 5G towers.

How Race to 5G in U.S. Hit Speed Bump Called C-Band: QuickTake

In a memo to staff seen by Bloomberg News, JetBlue Airways Corp. Chief Executive Officer Robin Hayes said the airline faces “the potential for significant disruptions to flights beginning Wednesday that will further stress our already fragile air system and disrupt the traveling public.”

Hayes said there’d been very little transparency until recently in data behind the decision to roll out 5G near airports and that concerns have mounted about potential interference with aircraft equipment. The move could set back the aviation industry’s recovery from the pandemic, he said.

Most airline shares, as well as Verizon and AT&T, were little changed Tuesday morning as the broader market slumped.

The FAA granted approvals Sunday that will allow some jetliners to operate within zones where new 5G wireless services are being used, significantly reducing the potential impact on flight schedules. The decision permits landings during low visibility at as many as 48 of the 88 U.S. airports with equipment for such arrivals, the FAA said.

However, analysis is continuing and a majority of airliners, including Boeing Co.’s 777 and 787 are still subject to limitations, meaning some level of disruptions are likely.

Europe, Asia

Phone companies have rolled out 5G systems in Europe and Asia without flight disruptions. After the FAA raised concerns in December, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said it hadn’t noticed any unsafe interference within the region, but would monitor the situation. It asked operators to be on alert, and suggested higher power levels may be a factor in the U.S.

“I am very shocked to see the reaction of U.S. airlines at the last moment,” said Rohan Dhamija, a managing partner with Analysys Mason who works from Dubai and New Delhi. The 3.5 GHz “C-band” “was allocated after a lot of testing, and after adequately ensuring there’s no interference with anything else.”

Two U.S. Congressman -- Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, and Rick Larsen, chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation -- joined airlines on Monday urged regulators to delay the implementation.

“We must provide the FAA and aviation industry with more time to thoroughly assess the risks of deployment in order to avoid potentially disastrous disruptions to our national airspace system,” the two Democrats wrote in a letter.

Reuters reported Monday on the letter from Airlines for America, which represents carriers including American Airlines Group Inc. and United Airlines Holdings Inc., as well as cargo operators such as FedEx Corp.

(Updates with stock activity in sixth paragraph)

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