US: 5G wireless signals could disrupt flights starting July 1. Know why
Starting this weekend, thousands of flights across the US could face disruptions when wireless providers power up new 5G systems near major airports. Aviation groups are worried that flight disruptions and possible disasters could be on the menu due to 5G signal interference with aircraft systems.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has warned that potential interference could affect sensitive aeroplane instruments such as altimeters and significantly hamper low-visibility operations.
Last week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg issued a similar warning that bumpy rides could be around the corner. He added that at least 20 per cent of the aircraft fleet in the country did not have the equipment to brave the signal interference.
"More than 80 per cent of the US fleet had been retrofitted, but a significant number of planes, including many operated by foreign airlines, have not been upgraded," said Buttigieg.
"There's a real risk of delays or cancellations. This represents one of the biggest—probably the biggest—foreseeable problems affecting performance this summer," he told The Washington Journal.
Airlines having troubles
Airlines have conveyed to the government that they are having trouble getting the equipment needed to retrofit planes due to supply-chain constraints.
Delta Air Lines said about 190 of its more than 900 planes had not received the new update and could face restrictions operating in bad weather. To avoid any untoward situation, the company said it was carefully rerouting the 190-odd planes to limit the cancellations where visibility is low because of fog or low clouds.
According to reports, all of Delta's A220 fleet, most of the A319s, A320s and some of the A321s are yet to be retrofitted with modern tech.
Under pressure from the Biden administration, the wireless companies agreed to delay the full rollout of their new networks around major airports until July 1.
Why aviation officials are worried?
Notably, telecom operations such as Verizon and AT&T use part of the radio spectrum called C-Band (3,700 MHz and 3,980 MHz frequencies) for their new 5G devices which is close to frequencies used by radio altimeters (4,200 MHz – 4,400 MHz). However, because the frequencies are incredibly close, experts as well as FAA officials argue that such interference can cause problems during flights.
Notably, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which granted spectrum rights to telecom companies has been at loggerheads with the FAA for a long time over the issue. Last year, after another round of bitter arguments, the rollout was postponed till 1 July 2023.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade group representing more than 100 airlines that fly in and out of the US, has said the decision not to extend the deadline makes summer disruptions more likely.
"Supply chain issues make it unlikely that all aircraft can be upgraded by the 1 July deadline, threatening operational disruptions during the peak northern summer travel season," the organisation said, adding that the estimated cost to upgrade planes is $638 million.