The imminent rollout of high-speed 5G telecoms services threatens to ground flights across the US, America’s largest airlines warned on Monday, as they urged government agencies to intervene to avoid “chaos” for passengers and “incalculable” disruptions to supply chains.
“The harm that will result from deployment on January 19 is substantially worse than we originally anticipated,” warned Airlines for America, an industry lobby group, pointing to the potential for 5G services to interfere with the sensitive equipment that aircraft use to take off and land.
The letter, seen by the Financial Times and first reported on by Reuters, was signed by America’s largest carriers as well as the air freight arms of two of the country’s largest logistics groups, UPS and FedEx.
The companies called on the Biden administration to block the rollout of 5G using towers located within about two miles of airport runways that the Federal Aviation Authority has identified as being prone to disruption.
“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the travelling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” the lobby group wrote in its letter to officials including Brian Deese, the National Economic Council director, and Pete Buttigieg, the transportation secretary.
The White House and the transportation department did not immediately respond to a request for comment. An Airlines for America spokesman declined to comment.
AT&T and Verizon had planned to launch their 5G services on December 5, but delayed the launch by a month to allow time for safety reviews. The two telecoms groups initially rejected a subsequent request from regulators to delay their rollout by another two weeks to January 19, but then agreed to do so.
The planned 5G services use frequencies in the “C-band” radio spectrum, which can be close to those used by altimeters that measure an aircraft’s height from the ground and feed information into navigation instruments and other onboard safety systems.
The FAA has planned buffer zones around 50 airports which have wireless transmitters in proximity to runways, in cities including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. However, airlines maintain that these will not be enough to prevent disruptions.
The 11 executives who signed Monday’s letter said that the FAA’s latest statement on the issue had downplayed the threat of disruption, and that continuing flight restrictions at those 50 airports could leave “huge swaths of the operating fleet” grounded indefinitely.
On Sunday the FAA cleared aircraft using two models of radio altimeters to perform low-visibility landings at the 88 airports it expects to be most affected by 5G C-band interference.
The FAA’s clearance of those devices could still leave 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers affected by cancellations or delays on a typical day, Airlines for America warned, saying that it had established that flight restrictions would not be limited to poor weather operations.
The airlines’ warning of “incalculable” effects on passengers, staff and cargo operations come as the industry is still struggling to rebuild its schedules to pre-Covid levels while dealing with seasonal disruptions from winter storms.
On Monday, FlightAware reported that more than 2,500 US flights had suffered delays, with more than 1,600 cancellations.