Airline CEOs Warn of Unprecedented ‘Chaos’ Tied to This Week’s 5G Rollout

Airline CEOs Warn of Unprecedented ‘Chaos’ Tied to This Week’s 5G Rollout
Photo: Sean Gallup, Getty Images

For weeks, airlines have been cautioning authorities over the delays and disruptions that would happen in the wake of telco companies’ planned rollout of 5G technology, and things are getting serious. On Monday, the CEOs of several transportation giants like Delta, JetBlue, and American Airlines warned transportation officials that “tens of thousands” of Americans risked being stranded by grounded flights if AT&T and Verizon move forward with their planned 5G deployment this week.

That warning, which was first obtained by NBC News, was addressed to National Economic Council Director Brian Deese, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Stephen Dickson, and Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. Buttigieg and Dickson have sided with airlines in the past, with the duo requesting delays to the 5G deployment at the start of this year. Said rollout has already been delayed multiple times over concerns from the FAA and others that the tech could potentially interfere with the automated cockpit systems that aircraft use while landing. Telecom companies, meanwhile, have argued that some of these fears might be overblown — but that didn’t stop AT&T and Verizon from pausing their planned rollout by about two weeks earlier this month.

We’ve passed that grace period now and telecom’s “C-band” 5G service is planned to be deployed across the country on Wednesday. Naturally, airlines are still terrified. “Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” the letter reads. It goes on to note that the planned 5G deployment on January 19th is “substantially worse” than the airline industry anticipated for two main reasons.

First, even though the FAA cleared about 45% of airlines to perform low-visibility landings at 50 large airports where 5G is planned to be deployed, 55% of all aircraft still aren’t cleared to fly in these zones. The letter points out that would inevitably lead to tens of thousands of passengers suffering delayed or cancelled flights at a time when passengers are already dealing with enough of those issues already.

And second, because 5G tech is suspected to render these aircraft unable to communicate with radio altimeters on the ground, “multiple modern safety systems” onboard these crafts will be deemed “unusable,” the letter noted.

“Aeroplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded,” it added. Not only would this cause chaos domestically, but this could potentially leave countless Americans stranded overseas. The solution airline leaders proposed in this new letter was a pretty simple one: allow 5G to be deployed nationwide starting Wednesday, with the exception of within two miles of major airport runways.

Both AT&T and Verizon had previously agreed to maintain temporary buffer zones at 50 airports for half a year after that initial deployment, where the companies each agreed to turn off their transmitters in order to, as the FAA put it, “minimise potential 5G interference with sensitive aircraft instruments used in low-visibility landings.”

Not long after the airline CEO’s letter was sent, AT&T announced it would be hitting pause on its plans to deploy 5G service near some of these airports while it continued to smooth things over with aviation regulators. While it didn’t say precisely which airports would be hit with the delay, a spokesperson told the New York Times that the company is “launching [its] advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers.”

AT&T also said what many people are thinking when it expressed its frustration at “the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner.” Everyone knew this was coming well ahead of time.

Verizon offered a similar sentiment. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries,” Verizon told Gizmodo in a statement. It added that it, too, had “voluntarily decided to limit [its] 5G network around airports.”

Needless to say, it looks like the “encouraging” talks between transport and telco heads that Buttigieg previously mentioned might not be so encouraging after all.