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Airplane Landings at Risk of Delays on FAA Move to Ease 5G Risk

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 12/7/2021 Alan Levin and Susan Decker
Key Speakers At The Mobile World Congress Americas © Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg Key Speakers At The Mobile World Congress Americas

(Bloomberg) -- Airliners, private planes and helicopters may have to limit landings in low-visibility conditions and follow other restrictions under a government directive to ensure safe operations once a new band of 5G mobile-phone service starts in January. 

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The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday issued two orders laying out potential flight restrictions that could cause severe restrictions at major airports during bad weather. 

“The FAA is working closely with the Federal Communications Commission and wireless companies, and has made progress toward safely implementing the 5G expansion,” the FAA said in a statement. “We are confident with ongoing collaboration we will reach this shared goal.”

The agency said in a press release that it believes “the expansion of 5G and aviation will safely co-exist” and stopped short of specific restrictions. But the two airworthiness directives lay the groundwork for what could be severe limitations across the nation’s aviation system if the regulator believes the signals -- from a part of the spectrum called the “C-Band” that the mobile carriers have procured to expand their service -- threaten safety.

The impact of the FAA’s directives have the potential to broadly limit flights. 

For example, the FAA said instrument landings, which are required during poor weather, may have to be banned. That has the potential to cause thousands of flight delays a day, particularly in busy hubs such as New York City, Chicago and elsewhere. 

Similarly, some automated systems used to make airport arrivals could also face restrictions, the FAA said. 

The commercial helicopter industry, which includes copters serving off-shore oil rigs and emergency medical flights, could also face restrictions.

The FAA directives also say that individual mobile phones on aircraft have the potential to cause interference, but stop short of restricting use of 5G devices on planes. 

The FAA said it is studying the potential for interference from 5G and would issue notices to aviators outlining specific restrictions, if needed. 


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FCC Response

The FCC pledged to continue to work with the aviation industry and regulator.

“The FCC continues to make progress working with the FAA and private entities to advance the safe and swift deployment of 5G networks, as evidenced by the technical mitigations wireless carriers adopted last month,” the communications agency said in a statement Tuesday. “We look forward to updated guidance from the FAA in the coming weeks that reflects these developments.”

Airline shares pared their gains after the FAA issued its statement. A broad Standard & Poor’s index of airline stocks was up less than 1% at 11:57 a.m. in New York after gaining as much as 2.6% amid a broad market rally.

AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., which issued an agreement to limit the signal strength of their new 5G service on Nov. 24, have disputed the risk of interference on a key safety component installed on thousands of aircraft. 

“Air safety is of paramount importance, but there is no evidence that 5G operations using C-Band spectrum pose any risk to aviation safety, as the real-world experience in dozens of countries already using this spectrum for 5G confirms,” Verizon spokesman Rich Young said in an emailed statement. 

“While the new directives suggest the FAA plans to further analyze this issue, we are confident that it will conclude -- as the FCC already found -- that 5G over C-Band poses no risk to air safety.”

Read More: Plane-Crash Risk Seen Rising on FCC Expansion of 5G Spectrum

AT&T Chief Executive Officer John Stankey, speaking Monday at a UBS conference webcast, said he expects the company to begin putting the C-Band spectrum into service in January and he is “not worried about the issue with the FAA.”

Aviation groups, however, said in a letter to the FCC on Monday that the measures by the companies were “inadequate” and greater restrictions were needed, particularly in areas close to runways and helicopter landing pads. 

The groups suggested a more tailored approach that would modulate the signal strength near the most critical areas, such as touchdown zones at airports and heliports. 

The C-Band spectrum, which AT&T and Verizon paid billions of dollars for the rights to use for 5G and plan to switch on Jan. 5, is adjacent to frequencies used by aircraft radar altimeters, which measure the distance to the ground. The devices have a wide range of uses, and in some cases can automatically adjust thrust levels on engines or help pilots land in low visibility. 

Commercial helicopters are required to have working radar altimeters under rules prompted by earlier fatal crashes. 

The mobile-phone industry has said repeatedly that the 5G signals are located far enough from the band used by radar altimeters that there’s no risk. Research by the nonprofit aviation research agency RTCA Inc. concluded that the signals could cause the altimeters to malfunction. 

(Updates with airline shares, additional details from sixth paragraph.)

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