**Airline Passengers Prepare for Potential Disruption as 5G Systems Near Airports**
Airline passengers who have experienced numerous weather-related flight delays this week may face further disruptions starting Saturday as wireless providers begin activating new 5G systems near major airports.
**Aviation Concerns over 5G Interference**
For years, aviation groups have raised concerns about the potential interference of 5G signals with aircraft equipment, particularly devices that utilize radio waves to measure distance above the ground. These devices are crucial during landings in conditions of low visibility.
However, the catastrophic flight groundings predicted last year due to interference did not occur when telecom companies initially rolled out the new 5G service. These companies subsequently agreed to limit the power of signals around busy airports, granting airlines an additional year to upgrade their planes.
**Criticism of Wireless Licensing Process**
The leader of the nation’s largest pilots’ union criticized the way wireless licenses were granted, stating that it added unnecessary risk to aviation. While crews will be able to handle the impact of 5G, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently warned that flights could be disrupted because some aircraft have not been upgraded to protect against radio interference.
**Airline Preparedness for 5G Interference**
Most major U.S. airlines have taken measures to ensure they are ready for potential 5G interference. American, Southwest, Alaska, Frontier, and United airlines have equipped all of their planes with height-measuring devices called radio altimeters, which are safeguarded against 5G interference.
However, Delta Air Lines remains an exception. Delta has 190 planes, mostly smaller ones, that lack upgraded altimeters as its supplier has been unable to deliver them promptly. Despite this, the airline does not anticipate canceling any flights due to this issue. Instead, Delta will carefully route the 190 planes to minimize the risk of flight cancellations or diversions in cases of poor visibility caused by fog or low clouds.
**Specific Aircraft Affected by Lack of Altitude Measuring Upgrades**
The Delta aircraft that have not been retrofitted include several models of Airbus jets, including all A220s, most A319s and A320s, and some A321s. However, Delta’s Boeing aircraft have upgraded altimeters, as do all planes belonging to Delta Connection, which is operated by Endeavor Air, Republic Airways, and SkyWest Airlines.
On the other hand, JetBlue, a major U.S. airline, has not responded to requests for comments but stated in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that it expects to retrofit 17 smaller Airbus jets by October, potentially causing “limited impact” in Boston on some days.
**Wireless Carriers’ Utilization of C-Band Spectrum for 5G Service**
Wireless carriers such as Verizon and AT&T use a portion of the radio spectrum known as C-Band for their new 5G service. This spectrum is close to frequencies used by radio altimeters, raising concerns about potential interference. However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted the carriers licenses for the C-Band spectrum and dismissed the risk of interference, asserting that there is a sufficient buffer zone between C-Band and altimeter frequencies.
Nevertheless, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) objected to this stance and sided with airlines, resulting in the wireless companies postponing the rollout of their new service. In a compromise mediated by the Biden administration, the wireless carriers agreed not to activate 5G signals near approximately 50 busy airports. However, this postponement is set to end on Saturday.
AT&T has declined to comment, while Verizon has yet to respond regarding its plans.
**Buttigieg’s Warning and Aircraft Retrofitting**
In a letter to the head of the trade group Airlines for America, Transportation Secretary Buttigieg reminded airlines about the looming deadline, stressing that only planes with retrofitted altimeters would be allowed to land under low-visibility conditions. Buttigieg mentioned that over 80% of the U.S. fleet has undergone retrofitting, but a significant number of planes, including those operated by foreign airlines, are yet to be upgraded.
Consequently, Buttigieg cautioned that increased delays and cancellations could occur on bad-weather, low-visibility days. Airlines with planes awaiting retrofitting were advised to adjust their schedules to prevent passenger strandings.
**Airline Complaints and the Pilots’ Perspective on 5G Impact**
Airlines have raised concerns about the slow approval of standards by the FAA for upgrading radio altimeters. Additionally, supply-chain issues have hindered manufacturers from producing enough retrofit devices. Nicholas Calio, the head of Airlines for America, expressed dissatisfaction with the rushed plane modifications driven by pressure from the telecommunications companies.
Jason Ambrosi, a Delta pilot and president of the Air Line Pilots Association, accused the FCC of granting 5G licenses without consulting aviation interests, thereby increasing risks to the world’s safest aviation system. Nonetheless, he expressed confidence that the aviation industry will ultimately manage the impact of 5G.