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Airlines ask Biden administration for more 5G protections to avoid ‘catastrophic disruptions’

POLITICO logo POLITICO 1/17/2022 By Daniel Lippman and Oriana Pawlyk
People travel through the George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Jan. 6 in Houston, Texas. © Brandon Bell/Getty Images People travel through the George Bush Intercontinental Airport on Jan. 6 in Houston, Texas.

The airline industry on Monday called on the Biden administration to block any 5G wireless transmission within a two mile radius of airport runways, citing the potential for thousands of flight cancellations and disruptions once the technology is switched on in just days.

Airlines for America, which represents most of the airline and cargo industry, warned that the 5G activation set to go live Wednesday will disrupt thousands of passengers and cargo shipments despite workarounds put into place by the Federal Aviation Administration to minimize interference where possible.

A letter obtained by POLITICO, calling for the action was signed by CEOs of Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines, FedEx and UPS’ airline units, among others, as well as the head of A4A.

“Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies” such as vaccines, the officials said in the letter, addressed to National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson.

The letter urged the officials to “take whatever action necessary” to make sure that 5G is not deployed in places where air traffic control towers are too close to runways, until the FAA can figure out how it “can be safely accomplished without catastrophic disruption.”

The CEOs said that airplane manufacturers have told them that absent remediations, “huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded” and that tens of thousands of Americans could get stranded overseas.


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“The ripple effects across both passenger and cargo operations, our workforce and the broader economy are simply incalculable” if 5G is implemented too close to airports, the letter warned. “Every one of the passenger and cargo carriers will be struggling to get people, shipments, planes and crews where they need to be. To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

Spokespeople for the White House and FAA had no immediate comment, while spokespeople for the DOT, FCC and CTIA, which represents the wireless industry, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Background: On Sunday, the FAA approved nearly a dozen aircraft types — roughly 45 percent of the U.S. fleet — that will be able to land when visibility is poor at some airports even once the 5G services are scheduled to be turned on this week. But A4A claimed despite those approvals, airlines “will not be able to operate the vast majority of passenger and cargo flights due to the FAA’s 5G-related flight restrictions unless action is taken.”

As part of the deal reached by AT&T, Verizon and the DOT earlier this month, the administration designated no more than 50 airports in the 5G service area where interference will be mitigated with added “buffer zones.” The deal, which delayed the 5G rollout by two weeks to Jan. 19, has also given the FAA time to test how altimeters — a device that measures how high a plane is off the ground — perform amid interference. That said, flights at some airports may still be affected, the FAA warned Sunday.

The FAA expects to issue additional approvals in the coming days, including alternate ways to ensure safety measures are met in the event pilots and crew can’t land despite the mitigations currently planned. DOT, AT&T and Verizon will still employ additional protections in certain airport zones over the next six months.

Previous estimates from A4A said if 5G technology were turned on in 2019, it would mean roughly 345,000 passenger flights, 32 million passengers and 5,400 cargo flights could be affected by delays, diversions or cancellations.

Even with ongoing testing of altimeters, the FAA suggested with inclement weather cropping up across the country this winter season, passengers should check ahead with the airline they’re flying — especially at destinations “where 5G interference is possible.”

A4A on Monday noted the weather risk, especially since roughly 2,800 flights were canceled Sunday as a winter storm barreled over the East Coast. “This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays,” the group said.

What’s next: The airline industry requested the agencies identify 5G towers closest to airports and take “whatever action necessary” to ensure flight safety and avoid “catastrophic disruption.”

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