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AT&T, Verizon Delay 5G Rollout as Global Airlines Suspend U.S. Flights

Madhu Unnikrishnan
January 18th, 2022 at 3:36 PM EST

AT&T and Verizon agreed on Tuesday to delay the rollout of their 5G wireless networks — scheduled to go live Wednesday — at several U.S. airports to give the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and airlines more time to determine if the networks will hinder landing at more than 50 airports. The delay comes as anxieties were mounting among airline CEOs about a potential crisis to airlines over this new technology. 

The wireless carriers’ announcement came too late to avoid several international airlines announcing they are cancelling flights to some of the affected airports.

Air India, All Nippon Airways, Emirates, and Japan Airlines are among the airlines that have said they are cutting some flights to the U.S. Each carrier cites the FAA’s warning that the new 5G networks could interfere with radio altimeters on Boeing 777 aircraft. Emirates will suspend flights to nine U.S. cities: Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Miami, Newark, Orlando, San Francisco, and Seattle. And Air India will suspend flights to four cities: Chicago, New York JFK, Newark, and San Francisco. ANA and JAL did not indicate which cities they would suspend, but both said they would substitute Boeing 787s for 777s on several U.S. routes.

President Joseph R. Biden thanked the wireless companies for further delaying the deployment. “This agreement protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans,” he said in a statement from the White House. “My team has been engaging non-stop with the wireless carriers, airlines, and aviation equipment manufacturers to chart a path forward for 5G deployment and aviation to safely co-exist.” 

AT&T and Verizon had expected to deploy the new 5G networks on January 5 but agreed to a two-week delay, until January 19, after the FAA warned that the networks could snarl flights across the country. The FAA said the delay would buy it time to determine the extent of the potential radio interference.

But two weeks proved not to be enough time. Last week, the regulator revealed a list of 50 airports — including most major U.S. markets — that could be affected by 5G’s interference with radio altimeters. It also issued 1,500 notices to airlines and airports to restrict specific flight paths and landing approaches. On Sunday, the FAA said it had cleared about half of those approaches, but the number that remained could cause delays on January 19, especially with winter weather already in the forecast.

On January 17, the heads of most U.S. airlines through Airlines For America (A4A) warned of severe travel woes beginning January 19 and asked the Biden administration to intervene. “Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” they wrote in a letter to the heads of the FAA, the National Economic Council, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and Federal Communications Commission Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. The CEOs of Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Atlas Air, Delta Air Lines, FedEx, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and UPS signed the letter.

“The ripple effects across both passenger and cargo operations, our workforce and the broader economy are simply incalculable,” the CEOs wrote. “Every one of the passenger and cargo carriers will be struggling to get people, shipments, planes and crews where they need to be. To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

AT&T and Verizon grudgingly agreed to a further delay, but noted that the FAA had ample time to identify the interference issues. “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 told Airline Weekly. “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.”

“As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports. 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,” a Verizon spokesperson said.

The delay ends an extraordinary round of fingerpointing in Washington. The FCC and the wireless companies say the FAA and the Transportation Department waited until November to issue preliminary warnings on the interference issue, despite having known about the technology for more than a year. The FAA, however, says the wireless companies and their regulator did not provide all the data needed to determine the extent of the interference.

Edward Russell contributed to this report.

Madhu Unnikrishnan
January 18th, 2022 at 3:36 PM EST

Photo credit: ANA's domestic and cargo networks helped stanch the losses from its international network.  Flickr / G B_NZ

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