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Flight Confusion as 5G Causes Safety Worries

Just as 5G technology was about to activate, airlines said it could ground planes across America.

By:  |  January 24, 2022  |    601 Words
GettyImages-1237839633 - United Airlines

(Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Computers are getting faster all the time, and so is the internet. Wireless networks across America and the world are evolving into their next stage: 5G. However, it looks like 5G could also cause some problems.

Airlines recently sent a letter to the U.S. government about worries that 5G could interfere with important airplane instruments. The concerns focus on how 5G towers close to airports could impact altimeters – the device that measures how high a plane is flying.

The C-band radio frequency used by altimeters is close to that used by some 5G networks, so there are worries that 5G towers could interfere with the altimeter readings. This could be dangerous, especially when landing a plane, as it’s essential pilots get accurate information about how close the plane is to the ground.

“5G” stands for fifth generation, and it is being installed to replace the 4G mobile networks that most people use now. Some predict the new technology will be hundreds of times faster than 4G technology.

Making a Deal

Telecommunications companies Verizon and AT&T planned to switch on their 5G networks Wednesday, January 19. Just a few days before the deadline, however, several airlines wrote the letter warning that the change could cause a “catastrophic” aviation crisis and prevent a lot of planes from being able to fly. American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and others told government officials that “Immediate intervention is needed to avoid … disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies.”

5g tower GettyImages-1365480312

5G tower (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

“Multiple modern safety systems on aircraft will be deemed unusable causing a much larger problem than what we knew,” the letter cautioned. “[T]here are huge swaths of the … fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded.” Many international airlines had already canceled flights in the U.S. due to safety concerns.

As a result of the worries, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) came to a deal with Verizon and AT&T, saying the companies would hold back a total switch for now. While they turned on 5G in many locations around the country, they agreed to a six-month delay for towers near airports.

President Joe Biden commented on the deal: “This agreement protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans.”

Verizon and AT&T have not been too happy with the hold-up. They argue that 5G has already been deployed in 40 other countries without affecting planes. “For us, I think we have done everything right,” said Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg.

Flight Friction

This isn’t the only recent disruption to air travel. Thousands of flights across America have been cancelled or delayed in the last few months due to issues including bad weather and staff shortages. The problem was especially bad over the holiday season. Over Christmas, hundreds of flights were canceled, due partly to the spread of the Omicron COVID variant.

As the FAA faces the challenge of dealing with 5G radio waves, some flights are being canceled or diverted because of poor weather conditions. According to the agency, aircraft with unreliable altimeters won’t be allowed to land in low-visibility conditions.

Luckily for travellers, over three-quarters of the U.S. fleet has been approved to perform the low-visibility landings near 5G towers. Meanwhile, the FAA is researching how altimeters work when C-band frequencies are being used nearby.

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