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Will 5G Rollout Disrupt Airplane Electronic Systems?

It’s unclear whether aviation and wireless industries will reach a compromise to avert potential disruptions, but Verizon and AT&T have agreed to a delay, pausing a rollout they originally planned to move ahead with.

(TNS) — Aviation experts and airlines are warning a rollout of 5G cellular service threatens to interfere with airplane electronic systems that are critical for pilots landing in bad weather.

It’s an issue that could have major implications for U.S. airports, including Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport, which already are experiencing large-scale flight delays and cancellations amid winter weather and pandemic-related staffing challenges.

It’s unclear whether aviation and wireless industries will fully reach a compromise to avert potential disruptions. But late Monday night, Verizon and AT&T agreed to a two-week delay, pausing the Wednesday rollout they originally planned to move ahead with.

“We have voluntarily agreed to one additional two-week delay of our deployment of C-Band 5G services,” AT&T spokeswoman Megan Ketterer said. “... We know aviation safety and 5G can co-exist, and we are confident further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues.”

Among the top issues that concern the aviation industry: the use of radio altimeters, which use radio waves to measure how high off the ground an aircraft is. The industry contends that 5G signals could interfere with the altimeters, potentially endangering landings, particularly in low visibility or otherwise poor conditions.

“If there’s any kind of weather, if there’s high winds, if the visibility isn’t good because of smog, you can’t use that equipment,” United Airlines Holdings Inc. CEO Scott Kirby recently told reporters, according to the Wall Street Journal. “You can’t land at airports — at Chicago O’Hare, at Atlanta, at Detroit — just think about what that means. This cannot be the outcome.”

The telecommunications industry — which paid more than $80 billion in an auction last year for access to the frequencies that are known as C-band — has pushed back on those concerns and pointed to successes in rolling out 5G in other countries, including France.

The Wayne County Airport Authority, which manages Detroit Metro, said in a statement Monday that it is “not aware of any 5G C-Band transmissions on the grounds” of the airport: “The Airport Authority is continuing to work with the FAA and telecommunication companies to ensure safe operations at DTW, while the FAA and FCC conduct more research on the impact of 5G antennas.”

On Sunday, AT&T and Verizon initially rejected a request from Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and the Federal Aviation Administration to postpone the 5G launch, prompting airlines to warn of an increase in flight delays. The wireless companies did say they would consider a six-month pause near some airports, the locations of which would be selected in negotiations.

“Agreeing to your proposal would not only be an unprecedented and unwarranted circumvention of the due process and checks and balances carefully crafted in the structure of our democracy, but an irresponsible abdication of the operating control required to deploy world-class and globally competitive communications networks that are every bit as essential to our country's economic vitality, public safety and national interests as the airline industry,” wrote Hans Vestberg, CEO of Verizon Communications, and John Stankey, CEO of AT&T, in response to the government’s request.

The companies had previously agreed to a delay until January and said they would reduce the power of their 5G signals, Bloomberg reported.

“We are reviewing the latest letter from the wireless companies on how to mitigate interference from 5G C-band transmissions,” the FAA said in a statement Sunday. “U.S. aviation safety standards will guide our next actions.”

Meanwhile, the FAA has been preparing to issue notices on flight restrictions. But experts say it remains to be seen how disruptive, if at all, the rollout will prove to be for flights.

“No one is even sure that there will or will not be interference,” said Max Li, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering whose work focuses on air traffic control and management. “It could pan out to be just a big hoopla. It could also pan out to be a really severe disruption.”

Every day at U.S. airports, there are roughly 1,000 “precision approaches” in which pilots use navigation systems, including radio altimeters, to help them land, according to airline industry analyst Robert Mann.

Meanwhile, in response to a request for comment, Delta, which has a hub at Detroit Metro, pointed to statements from industry trade group Airlines for America.

The group estimates that, were the safety restrictions the FAA is preparing to implement in place in 2019, approximately 345,000 U.S. airline passenger flights and 5,400 cargo flights would have been delayed, diverted or canceled, affecting some 32 million passengers.

“We urge the FCC and FAA to work together on a practical solution that will enable the rollout of 5G technology while avoiding disruption to the traveling and shipping public,” the organization said in a statement on its website.

In 2020, when the pandemic caused air travel to plummet, Detroit Metro counted 14.1 million passengers. In 2019, roughly 36 million passengers traveled through the airport.

Disruptions could be mitigated if the wireless industry agreed to certain restrictions other countries have put in place as they’ve rolled out 5G, Mann said. Canada, for example, has restricted 5G in zones around 26 airports, among other stipulations. Otherwise, he said, dispatchers might end up having to divert flights to other airports in cases where 5G interference is possible.

Experts say airports in large metropolitan areas that see high volumes of traffic could be particularly vulnerable to disruptions, especially those where adverse weather conditions, such as blizzards and thunderstorms, are more common.

“Where you have precipitation, where you have snow, where you have high winds, it’s not an easy environment to operate in and there are a lot of precision approaches required in that sort of a weather situation,” Mann said. “So Detroit is certainly going to have its share of impacts.”

Still, said Li, passengers should not worry about their safety. And the Wayne County Airport Authority indicating it’s not aware of any C-band transmissions on its grounds is a positive sign for operations there — though he noted that Detroit Metro could see an impact from flight disruptions at other airports.

But even without disruptions related to 5G, travelers should be aware that flight changes are common right now due to weather and staffing issues, Li said: “A good degree of patience and empathy for these folks and these (airline industry) workers would go a long way in these circumstances.”

© 2022 The Detroit News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.