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You're Telling Me 5G is Causing My Cancelled Flight?

An article answering what is causing flight cancellations, parties responsible for the policies, and the outlook of the aviation industry.


Showing up on the news more often now is that some airline flights are being cancelled during cloudy weather solely because of a 5G antenna causing interference. Although this is just now affected a large number of Americans, this has actually been on the back-burner for over a year.

This article is going to explore a brief timeline about the issues rising about related to the 5G interference with aircraft mid-flight, what entities are responsible for policies requiring this 5G system, and what the outlook is for American travel and the telecommunication systems causing this issue.


 

To skip ahead to different sections, click the links below:


Causes of the 5G/Aircraft Disruptions

When pilots have low-level sight during landing, they rely on what's called a radio altimeter to tell them how far off the ground the aircraft is. The photo below shows the concept behind the radio altimeter by the arrow going down and going back up after bouncing off the terrain.

This type of system has been around for about 100 years, and has evolved since, but now there is a 5G antenna emitting high-frequency signals that cause the aircraft to receive incorrect or unusable information.

The reason this is a problem is because aircraft cannot land the aircraft during low level clouds, fog, etc if they can't see the ground and cannot determine how far off the ground they are by radio.

The task force tasked with investigating interference of the systems concluded "there is a major risk that 5G telecommunications systems operating in the 3.7-3.98GHz band will cause harmful interference to radar altimeters on all types of civil aircraft," (DOT1)


Parties Responsible for 5G/Aircraft Disruption

Essentially, industry-leading telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Verizon got permission from the FCC to place their new 5G antenna arrays in close proximity to airports to further their business capabilities. More data and faster means more money for them. The Department of Transportation and Federal Aviation Administration realized those antennas would disrupt aviation safety. In a letter from the Department of Transportation and FAA to AT&T and Verizon, the Sectretary of Transportion recognized how this shift to 5G was a signficant investment by each company and "the importance of expanding 5G service for the American economy," (DOT2).

The aviation industry invests money into high-energy equipment that ensures a greater level of safety for the passengers and their own business. With this more advanced technology, aviation historically was not effected by handheld radios, science projects, walkie-talkies, etc because their equipment operated on a frequency well above modern consumer products


The dispute between telecommunications and FAA is that AT&T and Verizon's hardware and antennas now operate on a frequency disruptive to aircraft components, and when these components operate at the same time close together, passenger safety is at risk. The biggest emphasis FAA makes in their statements is that these systems must learn how to coexist to ensure absolute safety of passenger aircraft and avoid substantial disruptions to aviation operations.


A fantastic resource about this issue is found on the FAA website here.


Outlook of Aviation Safety and Commercial Telecommunications

For more than a year, AT&T and Verizon postponed their rollout of commercial use of the their 5G network at the request of the FAA and DOT, however, that deferment was set to end on July 1, 2023. This is the reason flights have started seeing frequenct cancellations AND that the news is starting to talk about this policy. For the last year, aviation companies like Delta, Southwest, American, Alaska have been retrofitting new radio altimieters into their older aircraft.


Conclusion

The FAA and telecom companies have compromised over the last year by giving airline companies time to update their older aircraft before AT&T and Verizon switched on their 5G communications network. With this sacrifice, hundreds of passenger flights were not impacted.

The largest airlines in the US have been updating their fleets to handle this new commercial infrastructure over the past year, but the whole civilianand business aviation industry will have to upgrade their aircraft all the same.

References

  1. Bell Depiction of Radio Altimeter 1922, Internet Archive Book Images, https://archive.org/stream/bellvol24telephonemag00amerrich/bellvol24telephonemag00amerrich#page/n256/mode/1up, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=115553341

  2. DOT1 (2021), "AD 2021-23-12," https://www.faa.gov/sites/faa.gov/files/2021-12/FRC_Document_AD-2021-01169-T-D.pdf

  3. DOT2 (2021), "DOT and FAA letter to AT&T and Verizon," https://www.faa.gov/sites/faa.gov/files/2021-12/12.31.2021%20-%20DOT%20and%20FAA%20Letter%20to%20ATT%20and%20Verizon%20.pdf


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