By Jackie Wattles and Pete Muntean, CNN
Potentially abysmal disruptions to air travel were narrowly averted this week when mobile carriers made a last-minute change to their planned 5G rollout in response to concerns that new cell service towers could interfere with an element passenger aircraft key that allows them to land safely at low altitude. visibility conditions.
The warnings of mass flight cancellations came as AT&T, Verizon and the airline industry reached a deal to delay the rollout of 5G around major airports. And on Thursday, the Federal Aviation Administration allowed more commercial airliners fly in situations where pilots consider possible 5G interference to be the most dangerous. Today, nearly 80% of the entire US commercial airliner fleet has this clearance.
In the end, the crisis seemed largely averted. No plane fell from the sky. And – with some exceptions — air travel remained on schedule for the most part.
But we are not yet clear.
The agreement to delay the rollout of 5G around airports is only a temporary fix, and it’s unclear whether all parties to the negotiations have a specific timeframe they’re working toward. A significant number of planes have still not been cleared to land in these most dangerous situations. Regional air carriers are crying out that they have been left out of talks and still face long and short term impacts. And, as far as the public knows, a permanent solution to the problem has still not been found.
Here’s everything we know — and don’t know — about the situation.
What’s wrong with the FAA “clearing” some planes but not others?
Radar altimeters are devices that use radio waves to measure how far an aircraft is off the ground, and they are essential for commercial airliners to land in bad weather. At the root of the lingering problem is the fact that the 5G frequencies that Verizon and AT&T have just rolled out, known as C-band, are very close to the frequencies used by radar altimeters, raising concerns about interference.
Over the past two weeks, radar altimeter makers have been racing to “evaluate data from wireless companies to determine how robust each model” of radar altimeter is and whether it can still work even when it’s flying. near an active 5G antenna, depending on the FAA.
In a statement Thursday, the FAA said it issued more approvals allowing 78% of the U.S. commercial jetliner fleet to make low-visibility landings at airports near where wireless companies have deployed. 5G. Essentially, regulators said they now consider it safe for aircraft that use any of 13 types of radar altimeters.
Approved models include:
- All Boeing 717, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777, 787, MD-10/-11 jets
- All Airbus A300, A310, A319, A320, A330, A340, A350 and A380 models
- Some Embraer 170 and 190 regional jets
But of course, over 20% of the US commercial aircraft fleet has not been approved. And the FAA warned that it expects “some altimeters will be overly sensitive to 5G interference.”
“To maintain safety, aircraft equipped with these altimeters will be prohibited from making low visibility landings where 5G is deployed, as the altimeter may provide inaccurate information,” the agency said.
The agency also warned that buffers that reduce 5G signal strength around some airports are critical to maintaining safe operations.
It is unclear, however, why the FAA and altimeter manufacturers could not have made these assessments sooner.
On his website, the FAA says that over the past two weeks it has “received vital 5G data” that made these decisions possible and “facilitated data sharing” between altimeter manufacturers and wireless carriers.
What’s wrong with regional carriers?
They are still in limbo, according to Faye Malarkey Black, who as president of the Regional Airline Association represents carriers connecting major hubs to dozens of smaller towns across the country.
Regional flights have brands like American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express, and they are contracted out to companies or subsidiaries like Envoy, ExpressJet, Republic Airways and SkyWest Airlines.
And for them – “the crisis was not averted”, Black warned.
Bombardier jets, which are frequently flown by regional carriers, did not get the green light for their altimeters. And Black said rural airports “will always take a beating for [their] operation when the time comes.
“We will never compromise on security,” Black wrote on Twitter. “Flights will be grounded. Short term = very disruptive. Long term = small [communities] will have less choice and less service.
How did we get here and who is to blame?
We are not sure. The airline industry has known for years that 5G is coming. Part of the problem may be an ongoing power struggle between the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission, which is the U.S. arbiter on all things radio spectrum and sold the spectrum band in question to wireless companies for a whopping $80 billion last year.
The FAA and FCC had been aware that airlines believed a travel disaster could be imminent if 5G was rolled out without addressing altimeter issues. Wireless carriers had largely dismissed these concerns, however, and it wasn’t until international airlines began canceling flights ahead of the 5G rollout on Wednesday that everyone started reporting significant progress in finding a solution.
And that’s how we got to where we are now, with temporary buffer zones preventing 5G from rolling out near certain airports – we’re not sure which ones – and a massive scramble to find out exactly how much altimeters will be impacted by this new cellular service.
As for who is to blame, Verizon and AT&T — which owns CNN’s parent company WarnerMedia — have assigned much of the blame to the Federal Aviation Administration in statements Tuesday.
But the FAA has been adamant that the aviation industry’s concerns are real — and with the industry already reeling from the global pandemic — airlines are desperate to avoid giving people another reason not to. steal.
Emirates Chairman Sir Tim Clark was outspoken about what he sees as the problem, blaming the whole structure of the US system, saying “this is one of the worst situations most delinquent and totally irresponsible” that he has seen in his career in aviation.
He added that the “risks and dangers” should have already been assessed.
How to fix all this?
It’s not clear. Discussions between wireless carriers AT&T and Verizon as well as the airline industry and federal regulators are still ongoing.
We don’t know if or when they will publicly announce a definitive way forward, but decisions will have to be made, especially since 5G “buffer zones” around major air hubs are still only temporary.
Tom Wheeler, who served as FCC Chairman from 2013 to 2017, wrote down some suggestions in a November piece for the Brookings Institution, where he said concerns about spectrum interference could be allayed by adjusting the altimeters themselves.
The problem? It will probably cost billions of dollars – billions that no company wants to take out of its own pockets.
“There are only three sources of such funds for the aviation industry. The government could shell out the approximately $82 billion generated from the sale of licenses to use the [5G spectrum at issue]; that would likely require an act of Congress,” Wheeler wrote. “The wireless industry could pay an additional price on top of the billions already spent on spectrum that the government says will be ready for use on December 5. The aviation industry, having known about the new 5G allowance for some time, could pay to repair the faulty altimeters.
Wheeler, for his part, also attributed much of the blame for this debacle to a lack of leadership and the absence of a national spectrum policy.
We are still awaiting updates on the negotiations from the FAA, FCC and all other affected parties. It’s unclear if there’s a firm deadline they’re working towards, or how long the “temporary” 5G buffers will remain in place.
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CNN’s Greg Wallace contributed