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Airlines Brace for Flight Restrictions in 5G Standoff

Date: December 19, 2021

By Andrew Tangel and Drew FitzGerald, Wall Street Journal

Airlines have begun planning for possible flight disruptions as U.S. regulators weigh competing proposals for protecting aircraft from a new fifth-generation cellular service slated to go live early next year, industry officials said.

The early-stage planning involves drawing up contingency plans without knowing where flight limits could be needed, as regulators analyze cell-tower and aircraft data, the officials said. It follows a regulatory order earlier this month outlining potential restrictions on landing in bad weather and other low-visibility conditions in up to 46 of the country’s largest metropolitan areas, where the service is scheduled to roll out starting Jan. 5.

While the wireless industry maintains that the planned wireless service poses no risk to aircraft, the Federal Aviation Administration has said it is worried about the cellular signals’ possible effect on cockpit safety systems.

Airline executives are in the middle of that dispute. “If there’s any kind of weather, if there’s high winds, if the visibility isn’t good because of smog, you can’t use that equipment,” United Airlines Holdings Inc.UAL 1.82% Chief Executive Scott Kirby told reporters Dec. 15. “You can’t land at airports—at Chicago O’Hare, at Atlanta, at Detroit—just think about what that means. This cannot be the outcome.”

The Federal Communications Commission auctioned off portions of the 5G-friendly frequencies, also known as C-band, about a year ago. Top auction winners AT&T Inc. T 0.30% and Verizon Communications Inc. VZ 0.80% were authorized to start offering some of the faster cellular service early this month, but the companies delayed their rollout until Jan. 5 to address the FAA’s still-unresolved concerns. The companies also pledged to dim the power of C-band signals, especially near airport runways, for another six months.

Flight limits could complicate the U.S. airline industry’s recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Domestic travel has bounced back, and airlines have been betting on a surge in demand for international flights in summer 2022. While some carriers might need to trim travel plans because of Boeing Co. BA 0.96% ’s delays delivering its 787 Dreamliner, Mr. Kirby, speaking at a Dec. 15 Senate hearing, called possible 5G restrictions the “biggest and most damaging potential issue facing us.”

U.S. telecom industry officials have disputed claims about the new technology’s safety risks. “The aviation industry’s fearmongering relies on completely discredited information and deliberate distortions of fact,” said Nick Ludlum, a spokesman for the wireless industry group CTIA. “We will launch this service in January with the most extensive set of protective measures in the world.”

Regulators are at odds over competing proposals from the U.S. aviation and telecom industries to limit the new 5G signals near airports. At a high-level meeting Wednesday that included Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, officials discussed both industries’ proposals to create buffer zones around airports, people familiar with the matter said.

Mr. Buttigieg requested that the FCC consider the aviation industry’s proposal, some of these people said. FCC officials described that proposal as a nonstarter that would amount to a no-5G option, another person familiar with the meeting said.

The FCC’s Ms. Rosenworcel has said she believed officials would find a solution to allow 5G deployment swiftly and safely. “I have confidence in the mitigations that have been offered up by the wireless industry,” she said at a Dec. 14 press conference.

An FAA spokesman said the regulator continues to work with other federal agencies and wireless companies so “5G C-band and aviation can safely coexist.”

‘It’s like a bad hurricane—you don’t know where it’s going to hit until it actually gets a little closer.’

— George Paul, vice president for technical services, National Air Carrier Association

As they game out various scenarios, airlines are awaiting specifics from the FAA about how broad or targeted the limits might be—and where—starting Jan. 5, industry officials said. About a week before that date, the FAA is expected to issue pilot warnings specifying which airports will be subject to restrictions, people familiar with the matter said.

Despite the unknowns, airlines are assessing what canceled or diverted flights could mean for fuel, aircraft and crew needs, said George Paul, vice president for technical services at the National Air Carrier Association, which represents smaller cargo and passenger airlines.

“It’s like a bad hurricane—you don’t know where it’s going to hit until it actually gets a little closer,” Mr. Paul said.

Airlines are also looking to aerospace manufacturers for guidance. Boeing, which at times makes its own safety recommendations, is evaluating potential risks not addressed by the FAA, people familiar with the matter said. Boeing engineers have been examining issues related to takeoff and pilots’ responses to possible 5G interference, according to one of these people.

European plane maker Airbus SE said it was working with its regulators and the FAA to provide guidance to airlines. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency, the FAA’s counterpart, doesn’t view the 5G issue with as much concern as American regulators do, a person close to the regulator said, but is aware of unconfirmed reports of 5G interference and is fielding inquiries from worried airlines.

The scope of any U.S. flight restrictions is expected to depend largely on 5G buffer zones around airports. Such proposed protections include reduced 5G signal strengths and limits on antennas pointed in certain directions to avoid potential interference with planes’ radar altimeters, which measure the distance between aircraft and the ground.

preliminary FAA analysis has found that the aviation industry’s proposal would likely avoid significant disruptions of U.S. air traffic, people familiar with the matter said. The agency’s early analysis of the telecom industry’s proposal suggests that it could lead to widespread cancellations and divisions in bad weather, these people said.

The FAA may also determine that certain radar altimeters aren’t at risk of interference, exempting aircraft equipped with them from any flight limits, according to a senior White House official involved with mediating the dispute.

Larger airport buffer zones would prevent cellphone carriers, which spent $81 billion for C-band licenses, from reaching as many customers in some of the often densely populated cities they serve.

Speaking at the recent Senate hearing, Delta Air Lines Inc.’s DAL 2.12% operations chief, John Laughter, said: “The safety concerns with aircraft and aviation are very real, and I also know that there’s a solution here.”

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