Flight or fight: 5G confusion rocks both sides of the Atlantic
The frenzy around 5G seems to have eased in the last day or so, as many US carriers – including American Airlines – said they registered a “minor operational impact”.
Earlier this week, the discourse around 5G and airlines was very different especially when major carriers – including Lufthansa, Emirates and British Airways (BA) – started to cancel and reschedule their US routes following concerns over the US roll out of the technology.
On top of cancelling a few flights, Lufthansa and BA swapped their aircraft, with the German carrier choosing a Boeing 747-400 instead a 747-8, while the British airline opted for an Airbus A380 instead of a Boeing 777.
Emirates on Tuesday suspended flights to several US cities, but on Thursday decided to resume services, after the US Federal Aviation Authority cleared 62 per cent of planes to perform low-visibility landing at airports that deployed 5G.
Airlines initially decided to cancel some of their services on Tuesday following a notice from the FAA and Boeing which said that certain technology on certain types of plane – including Boeing’s 777 – was more susceptible to 5G interference.
Measuring the altitude of cruising planes, altimeters operate between 4.2 and 4.4GHz and could be disrupted by the 5G range, potentially disturbing pilots’ take-off and landing operations in bad weather.
The roll out of 5G has been harshly criticised by the aviation industry. In December, plane manufacturers Airbus and Boeing called on the Biden administration to delay it, citing the aforementioned reasons, which were reiterated on Tuesday by several US airlines in a letter to transportation secretary Pete Buttigieg.
The White House’s response didn’t take long to come. On Tuesday night, President Biden was locked in talks both with aviation and telecommunications stakeholders, which led to telecommunications giant Verizon and AT&T agreeing to delay 5G deployment near airports.
“We recognize the economic importance of expanding 5G, and we appreciate the wireless companies working with us to protect the flying public and the country’s supply chain,” said Buttigieg in a statement. “The complex US airspace leads the world in safety because of our high standards for aviation, and we will maintain this commitment as wireless companies deploy 5G.”
What happened in the US has made many wonder if other countries could be affected by the same issues. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has not yet reported any 5G related incidents.
“We are working with Ofcom and the Ministry of Defence to make sure that the deployment of 5G in the UK does not cause any technical problems for aircraft and are keeping our position under constant review,” said a CAA spokesperson.
“Also, as UK aircraft fly throughout the world we have issued safety advice to airlines on the 5G status in other countries, including the USA.”
This side of the Atlantic
However, UK regulators and airlines do not seem particularly worried.
In a safety notice published in December, the CAA stressed that “different national mobile telecommunication strategies may mean that some [countries] have a higher threat exposure than others”.
The UK regulator has said that it plans to work internationally to gather further data on the issue.
Kester Mann, director of Consumer and Connectivity at CCS Insight, weighed in on the debate and told City AM: “Although an inconvenience, the carriers have little choice but to hold off. The implications of any accident caused as a direct result of interference to planes’ navigation systems could have disastrous consequences not just for themselves, but the telecoms industry at large.”
“The situation is somewhat embarrassing for the US as it reflects the fact it is being weighed down by bureaucracy given that regulators in other regions such as Europe are voicing no such concerns”.