Ignoring Airline Industry’s Concerns about 5G Won’t Fly

As passengers make plans to take to the skies this spring and summer, risk from 5G wireless service interference with airliner navigation systems could wreak havoc. What happens next depends on whether the wireless industry continues to voluntarily share critical information that aviation safety regulators need and to collaborate to make certain we keep flying safe.


In January, the Department of Transportation rightly asked wireless companies to temporarily delay the new 5G deployment in some areas until aviation safety risks could be addressed. Even its partial launch has necessitated an enormous number of 5G-related regulatory directives that vary based on aircraft type, altimeter model, airport, runway, and weather.


In the early days of aviation, safety improvements were largely made in response to accidents. In recent decades, the regulator, airlines, and workers have used data to identify risks and implement fixes before accidents ever happen. As a result, the United States has created the safest air transportation system in the world.


Given this history, it was no surprise that when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that it would reassign the C-Band for 5G broadcast in 2018, the aviation sector immediately asked for data. To keep flying safe, we needed to understand how 5G signals in this frequency would affect radar altimeters that tell aircraft systems and flight crews how high an aircraft is above the terrain. Regrettably, the FCC ignored aviation safety experts, reassigning the spectrum for 5G in 2020 and auctioning it in 2021. 


The U.S. air transportation system stands apart from that of any other country in its size, scale, and complexity. The 5G deployment plan is also different here, where the FCC authorized more powerful signals with fewer safeguards than those found anywhere else on the globe. 


For pilots, evaluating the 5G-related rules in a dynamic flight environment creates a workload spike and a risk of distraction when concentration is needed most during approach and landing. For airlines and airports, frequently changing 5G regulatory directives create uncertainty and often prohibit flights from operating altogether. Both factors cause flight cancellations, delays, and closures that compromise our ability to help drive economic recovery. Moreover, the avoidable scramble to ensure safety during 5G deployment pulls resources from other industry priorities such as NextGen and its safety, efficiency, and sustainability gains.


Our view is simple: Because we have the world’s safest air transportation system, the burden must be on those who seek to introduce risk to prove that their actions won’t degrade safety, not the other way around. Thanks to public pressure—including a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing—the wireless companies have released some data, but more information and continued cooperation is needed. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) must be able to evaluate and mitigate the interference risk for all flight operations, including those at small and non-hub airports, and make certain every flight—mainline, regional, cargo, fixed wing, rotorcraft, and general aviation—is safe. 


The chaos that has ensued from the FCC’s failure to address aviation safety concerns expressed over many years, impose the necessary limitations, and coordinate with other agencies responsible for public safety must never be allowed to happen again. Excuses about proprietary information simply won’t be tolerated—U.S. airlines don’t compete on safety, which is a prime reason why flying is so safe.


As new 5G service is implemented and future spectrum-allocation decisions are made, the FCC must be required to collaborate with—and defer to—the FAA and other agencies charged with safety oversight. In addition, the FAA must be given the authority to reject new or expanded spectrum applications that affect aviation until safety can be ensured.


The wireless companies’ short-term agreement to delay full implementation of its 5G service expires in July. This leaves no time to waste for them to collaborate with the airline industry to create a permanent data-driven plan to ensure safe summer travel. With the wireless industry on board, the United States can affirm its global leadership in 5G technology while protecting the airline industry’s ability to safely drive the global economy, keep supply chains opens, and connect the world.

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