Pilot union begs for 5G rollout to be halted at US airports

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), a trade group for 61,000 pilots at 38 US and Canadian airline companies, has said that a two-week delay in activating 5G towers around airports is not enough to ensure a permanent solution. The association said that the delay in rollout acknowledges the seriousness of aviation safety and operational risks. But airline passengers and shippers “deserve a commitment from the telecom companies not to launch the new 5G service at any of the airport locations identified by the FAA as being susceptible to 5G interference” till a permanent fix is found, it said.

It also criticised the Federal Communications Commission and telecom companies for ignoring red flags about 5G. “As we have reiterated for years, the aviation community has been raising red flags about 5G interference with aircraft instruments – concerns that have been ignored by the Federal Communications Commission and the telecom companies, creating the mess we’re in today,” it said. “The United States has the safest air transportation system in the world, and our trained-for-life pilots plan to keep it that way,” the association added. “But this is no way to protect that safety record and America’s vital aviation industry, which is so critical to our nation’s economy and the global supply chain.”

The statement was released after wireless telecom giants AT&T and Verizon agreed to temporarily defer turning on some wireless 5G towers near key airports to avert significant disruption to US flights as they roll out 5G services that will bring faster wireless service to millions. Telecom companies agreed to delay turning on 5G towers within a two-mile radius of runways on Tuesday after the Biden administration intervened. President Joe Biden hailed the move, saying it “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90% of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled”.

Less than 36 hours before Verizon and AT&T were set to deploy new 5G services, the top executives of major passenger and cargo carriers in the US warned against an impending “catastrophic” aviation crisis.

Airline industry leaders had said in a letter on Monday the deployment of new 5G mobile internet technology could lead to the grounding of a number of flights due to interference from the technology, “potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas” and lead to a “chaos” for US flights. “Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded. 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,” they 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,” AT&T said in an official statement on Tuesday, criticising the Federal Aviation Administration. “As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports,” Verizon said in a separate statement. “The Federal Aviation Administration and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries.” The high-speed 5G internet uses so-called C-band frequencies close to those used by aircraft to measure their altitude.

The Federal Aviation Administration warned that potential interference could affect sensitive airplane instruments such as altimeters and significantly hamper low-visibility operations.

Additional reporting from the wires