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5G Scare Explained: Why Are Airlines Cancelling US Flights?

Airlines are worried that the C-band 5G will interfere with aircraft safety systems.

Updated
Tech News
3 min read
5G Scare Explained: Why Are Airlines Cancelling US Flights?
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Major airlines across the world like Emirates, Japan Airlines, and All Nippon Airways have cancelled or reshuffled flights to the US, citing concerns over the rollout of C-band 5G mobile service in the country.

Air India had also cancelled at least 8 flights “due to deployment of 5G communications in the US”, but has since resumed operations, after getting clearance from US authorities.

Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) chief Arun Kumar told PTI that the Indian aviation regulator was working "in close coordination with our carriers to overcome the situation".

After a voluntary six-week delay over aviation concerns, major American telecom providers AT&T and Verizon on Wednesday started activating 5G C-band towers across the US.

5G Scare Explained: Why Are Airlines Cancelling US Flights?

  1. 1. What are Airlines Concerned About?

    Airlines are worried that the C-band 5G will interfere with aircraft safety systems. Radio altimeters, in particular, use high frequency radio waves (between 4.2 - 4.4 gigahertz) to measure a plane's distance from the ground.

    The C-band 5G spectrum in the US gives telecom carriers access to the 3.9–3.98 GHz band, which is very close to the frequencies at which altimeters operate, and can potentially cause interference.

    Radio altimeters are more accurate than barometric altimeters and are used where aircraft height needs to be precisely measured, especially during low altitude and low visibility operations.

    For telecom providers a higher frequency band means faster service. They argue that 5G has already been deployed other countries and hasn't caused any trouble for aircrafts.

    Verizon and AT&T have also agreed to create buffer zones around 50 US airports for six months to minimize potential interference. They have also expressed frustration at the government for not "responsibly" utilising the the time they had to plan for the rollout.

    Expand
  2. 2. What do US Authorities Have to Say?

    The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), on January 14, said, “5G interference with the aircraft’s radio altimeter could prevent engine and braking systems from transitioning to landing mode, which could prevent an aircraft from stopping on the runway.”

    This isn't a new issue. The FAA, along with airlines and aircraft manufacturers, has raised concerns about 5G interference for several years now.

    The authority says that it had flagged this issue in 2015 and had held technical discussions with industry players.

    In 2020, ahead of the auction for 5G C-Band in the US, the FAA had again raised concerns and asked for a postponement to collaborate with telecom providers on a solution.

    It is now working on measures "to ensure that radio signals from newly activated wireless telecommunications systems can coexist safely with flight operations in the United States, with input from the aviation sector and telecommunications industry."

    The FAA is currently in the process of giving clearance to different radio altimeters and analysing "vital 5G transmitter location and power level information from the wireless companies."

    Expand
  3. 3. Which Aircraft Models are Affected?

    The issue initially appeared to impact the Boeing 777, a long-range and wide-body aircraft that is widely used for international flights. This is why Air India and other major airlines, which use this aircraft on its US routes, had temporarily cancelled certain flights.

    However, Boeing and the FAA have now given the aircraft clearance to operate in the US, even in low visibility conditions.

    Other aircraft models with approved altimeters are:

    • Boeing 717, 737, 747, 757, 767

    • MD-10/-11

    • Airbus A300, A310, A319, A320, A321, A330, A340, A350, A380

    The FAA estimates that 62% of the US commercial fleet will operate without 5G interference. Aircraft not mentioned in this list are yet to be cleared by the authority.

    Expand
  4. 4. Will This Affect India, Too?

    Earlier this month, the Federation of Indian Pilots (FIP), with a membership of 6,000 pilots, expressed concern over possible interference of 5G signals with aircraft equipment.

    In a letter to Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, it asked the DGCA and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to work together to ensure the safe implementation of 5G, Frontline reported.

    However, the 5G spectrum (yet to be rolled out) in India, reportedly occupies a frequency range of 3.3 - 3.68 GHz for telecom operators, below US's upper limit of 3.98 GHz.

    In a press statement on January 12, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said, "There is a gap of 530 MHz (from 3670 MHz to 4200 MHz) in the transmission of frequencies (in India), making it safe for 5G and aviation to co-exist."

    Similarly, in most countries, the 5G band occupies a lower range than in the US. For instance, in the European Union 5G frequencies sit in the 3.4 - 3.8 GHz range, while in Korea they occupy the range of 3.42 - 3.7 GHz.

    (With inputs from PTI and Frontline)

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What are Airlines Concerned About?

Airlines are worried that the C-band 5G will interfere with aircraft safety systems. Radio altimeters, in particular, use high frequency radio waves (between 4.2 - 4.4 gigahertz) to measure a plane's distance from the ground.

The C-band 5G spectrum in the US gives telecom carriers access to the 3.9–3.98 GHz band, which is very close to the frequencies at which altimeters operate, and can potentially cause interference.

Radio altimeters are more accurate than barometric altimeters and are used where aircraft height needs to be precisely measured, especially during low altitude and low visibility operations.

For telecom providers a higher frequency band means faster service. They argue that 5G has already been deployed other countries and hasn't caused any trouble for aircrafts.

Verizon and AT&T have also agreed to create buffer zones around 50 US airports for six months to minimize potential interference. They have also expressed frustration at the government for not "responsibly" utilising the the time they had to plan for the rollout.

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What do US Authorities Have to Say?

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), on January 14, said, “5G interference with the aircraft’s radio altimeter could prevent engine and braking systems from transitioning to landing mode, which could prevent an aircraft from stopping on the runway.”

This isn't a new issue. The FAA, along with airlines and aircraft manufacturers, has raised concerns about 5G interference for several years now.

The authority says that it had flagged this issue in 2015 and had held technical discussions with industry players.

In 2020, ahead of the auction for 5G C-Band in the US, the FAA had again raised concerns and asked for a postponement to collaborate with telecom providers on a solution.

It is now working on measures "to ensure that radio signals from newly activated wireless telecommunications systems can coexist safely with flight operations in the United States, with input from the aviation sector and telecommunications industry."

The FAA is currently in the process of giving clearance to different radio altimeters and analysing "vital 5G transmitter location and power level information from the wireless companies."

Which Aircraft Models are Affected?

The issue initially appeared to impact the Boeing 777, a long-range and wide-body aircraft that is widely used for international flights. This is why Air India and other major airlines, which use this aircraft on its US routes, had temporarily cancelled certain flights.

However, Boeing and the FAA have now given the aircraft clearance to operate in the US, even in low visibility conditions.

Other aircraft models with approved altimeters are:

  • Boeing 717, 737, 747, 757, 767

  • MD-10/-11

  • Airbus A300, A310, A319, A320, A321, A330, A340, A350, A380

The FAA estimates that 62% of the US commercial fleet will operate without 5G interference. Aircraft not mentioned in this list are yet to be cleared by the authority.

ADVERTISEMENT

Will This Affect India, Too?

Earlier this month, the Federation of Indian Pilots (FIP), with a membership of 6,000 pilots, expressed concern over possible interference of 5G signals with aircraft equipment.

In a letter to Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia, it asked the DGCA and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to work together to ensure the safe implementation of 5G, Frontline reported.

However, the 5G spectrum (yet to be rolled out) in India, reportedly occupies a frequency range of 3.3 - 3.68 GHz for telecom operators, below US's upper limit of 3.98 GHz.

In a press statement on January 12, Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI) said, "There is a gap of 530 MHz (from 3670 MHz to 4200 MHz) in the transmission of frequencies (in India), making it safe for 5G and aviation to co-exist."

Similarly, in most countries, the 5G band occupies a lower range than in the US. For instance, in the European Union 5G frequencies sit in the 3.4 - 3.8 GHz range, while in Korea they occupy the range of 3.42 - 3.7 GHz.

(With inputs from PTI and Frontline)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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