Airlines warn of 5G C-band upheavals

Chief executives of major U.S. airlines on Monday sent a letter urging immediate additional action they say is needed to avoid serious disruptions to aviation from 5G C-band deployments, which AT&T and Verizon planned to activate on January 19.

A back and forth between wireless and aviation stakeholders and regulators has been playing out since before November when the two carriers - who together spent more than $68 billion on C-band spectrum licenses alone in early 2021 - initially agreed to hold off on deploying it for 30 additional days until January 5. The delay was granted while the Federal Aviation Administration worked out interference concerns related to 5G signals in the 3.7-3.98 GHz C-band and aircraft radio altimeters at 4.2-4.4 GHz GHz with the FCC.

At the 11th hour, that date was again pushed back by two weeks until January 19, following a request by the U.S. Transportation Secretary. The carriers already agreed to implement temporary power restrictions and then proposed 5G exclusion zones around airport runways. Fifty of the airport zones were identified by the FAA in the intervening weeks.

RELATED: AT&T, Verizon agree to delay C-band launch – again

Specifically, the airline CEOs yesterday requested “that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate 2 miles of airport runways at affected airports,” saying it would allow the cellular service to be deployed without broader harmful impacts to air travel, shipping, supply chain, and medical supply delivery. The airlines want to continue discussions with the U.S. government and carriers on how to expand 5G deployment while “protecting aviation from devastating operational restrictions.”   

AT&T in a statement Tuesday said that it’s frustrated with the FAA, as aviation interests had time to prepare for but will still voluntarily wait to turn on certain 5G towers around airports.

“At our sole discretion we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment,” an AT&T spokesperson said. “We are frustrated by 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. We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers.”

RELATED: FAA issues impact notices ahead of C-band 5G launches

The first 100-megahertz batch of C-band spectrum to be deployed for 5G is in the 3.7-3.8 GHz range and covers 46 major market areas, known as partial economic areas (PEAs). At FCC Auction 107 Verizon acquired 60-megahertz and AT&T obtained 40-megahertz of the earliest available C-band, and both hold additional C-band spectrum that isn’t expected to be ready for use until the 2023 timeframe.

Verizon, which has been actively preparing to turn on key mid-band spectrum for 5G over the last year with expectations to cover 100 million people on day one, did not immediately respond to Fierce request for comment. Verizon later released a statement on its new agreement to limit 5G deployments around airports, full story here

Airline industry ups urgency

In a letter obtained by Reuters, CEOs of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, JetBlue, Southwest, United Airlines and others on Monday warned that major airport hubs won’t be getting relief from the FAA and even at the 50 identified airports would still be subject to flight restrictions

“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” wrote the letter signatories which also included CEOs of UPS Airlines, FedEx Express, Alaska Air and Hawaiian Airlines. “This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays.”

RELATED: AT&T, Verizon agree to C-band power limitations for 6 months

Moreover, the airlines said that restrictions aren’t limited to landing in poor weather conditions as radio altimeters provide information to other safety systems that won’t be usable, saying it creates a larger problem than the airlines knew earlier in the month.

“Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded. In addition to the chaos caused domestically, this lack of usable widebody aircraft could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas,” the letter continued.

RELATED: Airlines file emergency petition to stop 5G C-band deployment near airports

The group warned of a ripple effect as passenger and cargo carriers struggle to get aircraft where they need to be, saying “to be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

The letter is addressed to White House National Economic Council director Brian Deese, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson and FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg were Cc’d.

On Monday the FAA said “With safety as its core mission, the FAA will continue to ensure that the traveling public is safe as wireless companies deploy 5G. The FAA continues to work with the aviation industry and wireless companies to try to limit 5G-related flight delays and cancellations.”

In a statement on January 16 the FAA said it had cleared an estimated 45% of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at many airports where 5G C-band is to be deployed on January 19. The agency also said it approved two radio altimeter models that are installed in a wide variety of Boeing and Airbus planes.

“This combination of aircraft and altimeter approval opens up runways at as many as 48 of the 88 airports most directly affected by 5G C-band interference,” the FAA stated.

Older radio altimeters that need to be retrofitted or replaced have been at the center of interference concerns, particularly around low-visibility landings. The FAA had acknowledged that even with new approvals “flights at some airports may still be affected” but expected to issue more approvals in the coming days.

Last week as the FAA started publishing impact notices (expecting more than 1,300) specifying information on restrictions or procedures that pilots and others need to follow. A January 14 FAA statement said it would require operators of Boeing 787s to take additional precautions when landing on wet or snowy runways at airports where C-band is deployed, affecting 137 U.S. aircrafts and 1,010 worldwide.

NBC on Tuesday reported a statement from United Airlines saying the current plan for 5G rollout “would have a devastating impact on aviation” and could potentially adversely affect up to 1.25 million United passengers.

Spectrum policy scuffle

The latest last-minute plea from airline interests come as the U.S. wireless carrier and FCC have been working to address aviation concerns, including with the operator’s January 3 proposal for the 5G exclusions zones that model what aviation is doing in France where executives have pointed out C-band is already successfully deployed.

Wireless industry representatives have also pointed to C-band deployments in nearly 40 other countries that haven’t had issues with airplane equipment interference,  such as France where U.S. planes fly in and out of regularly. Before auctioning C-band spectrum last year and ahead of its February 2020 vote, the FCC held a lengthy proceeding on clearing the spectrum for 5G, which included leaving a 220-megahertz guardband it determined was enough to protect altimeters.

RELATED: Aviation, wireless industries clash over C-band interference

Officials at the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority meanwhile have acknowledged assessments by the U.S. FAA but did not feel the need to take any immediate action, according to TechCrunch.

“There have been no reported incidents of aircraft systems being affected by 5G transmissions in UK airspace, but we are nonetheless 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," confirmed the CAA to TechCrunch.

In response to the commercial airline industry’s most recent request, Joe Kane, director of broadband and spectrum policy at science and technology thinktank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, said it was disappointing to see the airlines, for the third time in three months seeking a delay “despite having had almost two years to ensure their altimeters could operate safely under the rules set under the guidance of capable FCC engineers.”

“While not everyone gets their preferred outcome in administrative proceedings, it is important for all players to follow the established advisory process to resolve interference disputes. Attempting an end-run around the established federal process for spectrum allocation is bad for wireless consumers and airline passengers alike,” Kane stated.

Updated to reflect Verizon agreement to limit 5G deployment around airports and link to full story.