CEOs of major US airlines such as American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines have warned that the upcoming deployment of additional 5G spectrum on Wednesday might create “catastrophic Disruption” for flights across the US beginning tomorrow. The warning was made in a letter from the CEOs seen by Reuters, which indicated that both commercial and cargo aircraft could be affected. According to Reuters, the letter was delivered to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, and White House National Economic Council director Brian Deese.
The 5G spectrum in question is known as C-band, and AT&T and Verizon’s deployments are scheduled to go online on January 19th after repeated delays. Fears that these new C-band airwaves could interfere with sensitive radar altimeters on particular planes are at the heart of the problem, as my colleague Russell Brandom outlined earlier this month. Altimeters are crucial for landings, especially when visibility is limited, and they were blamed for a tragic Turkish Airlines crash in 2009. According to the airlines, “aeroplane manufacturers have advised us that large swathes of the operating fleet may need to be permanently grounded as a result of the forthcoming 5G deployments.”
Despite the fact that there is legally 220MHz of space between the plane’s equipment and the new 5G spectrum, airlines are concerned that older equipment on some planes may still be affected. Concerns over air safety have already caused the C-band rollout to be pushed back from December to this week. It suggests that, after further investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration, the size of this buffer could be reduced (FAA). Verizon and AT&T already agreed on January 3rd to take efforts to limit the potential impact on aviation, including establishing six-month buffer zones around 50 airports.