Airline execs blast away at C-band before commercial deployments

In a Senate hearing where airlines were queried about their Covid requirements and how passengers are nickeled and dimed for everything, 5G emerged as a No. 1 concern among airline executives.

Top executives from American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines and Delta Air Lines were among those who appeared before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation hearing on Wednesday. The hearing, which lasted more than three hours, came during one of the busiest times for the airline industry, which is just getting back on its feet after Covid-related shutdowns.

It’s also a week after the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued airworthiness directives that warn pilots about C-band deployments due to begin in January. The FAA is worried that 5G in the 3.7-3.98 GHz band will interfere with radio altimeters, which are used to safely land and operate planes.

RELATED: FAA issues 5G warning, cites C-band ‘progress’

Noting that there are 39 countries where no problems have been detected from similar 5G deployments, Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) asked if anyone on the panel had experienced a problem with 5G deployments.

No one raised their hand, but Southwest CEO Gary Kelly said their No. 1 concern is tied to the FAA’s issuance of air worthiness directives that would significantly impact operations on January 5.

“It’s not an airline concern per se. The FAA is uncomfortable with the safety risk,” he said, and as a consequence, the impact on airlines would result in a significant impact on operations.

He was referring to new airworthiness directives issued by the FAA last week warning interference from 5G wireless spectrum could result in flight diversions.

AT&T and Verizon delayed their C-band deployments by one month, to January 5, to address FAA safety concerns. In addition, the carriers are lowering their power from the gear for six months to accommodate further study, but the FAA isn’t satisfied with that.

The safety concerns with aviation and 5G are “very real,” said Delta’s John Laughter, adding that with the combination of power adjustments and location, “we could absolutely solve this” and live in a world where 5G is available.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said after the hearing that AT&T and Verizon must delay plans to use the C-band spectrum for 5G because it could delay, divert or cancel about 4% of daily flights and impact hundreds of thousands of passengers, Reuters reported.

The FAA directives basically mean pilots couldn’t use the radio altimeters in bad weather or when there’s cloud cover or heavy smog, and only visual approaches would be allowed.

RELATED: Aviation industry seeks longer delay on C-band deployment

The trade group Airlines for America (A4A) said Wednesday that if the FAA 5G directive had been in effect in 2019, about “345,000 passenger flights, 32 million passengers, and 5,400 cargo flights would have been impacted in the form of delayed flights, diversions, or cancellations," Reuters noted.

CTIA said any delay in 5G rollouts will have significant impacts and it’s sticking by the January timeline.

“The aviation industry’s fearmongering relies on completely discredited information and deliberate distortions of fact. 5G operates safely and without causing harmful interference to aviation operations in nearly 40 countries around the world. U.S. airlines fly in and out of these countries every day,” said Nick Ludlum, CTIA SVP and Chief Communications Officer, in a statement.

“We will launch this service in January with the most extensive set of protective measures in the world. We agree with the FAA that we can and will have both safe flights and robust and reliable 5G service,” Ludlum said.