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5G deployment issue: We won't compromise on safety; Air India cancels some US flights

By FnF Desk | PUBLISHED: 19, Jan 2022, 19:45 pm IST | UPDATED: 05, Mar 2022, 22:14 pm IST

5G deployment issue: We won't compromise on safety; Air India cancels some US flights New Delhi: Air India has curtailed its operations to the USA from India in view of the deployment of 5G communications by the United States.

"#FlyAI: Due to deployment of 5G communications in the USA, our operations to the USA from India stand curtailed/revised with change in aircraft type from January 19, 2022. Update in this regard will be informed shortly," said a tweet from Air India.

Airline companies in the US are currently at odds with companies like AT&T and Verizon over their plans of launching 5G wireless services. The airlines have warned that thousands of flights could be grounded or delayed if 5G services are rolled out near major airports with their CEOs saying that 5G interferes with key instruments on planes and affects them far more than what was originally thought, as per reports.

Now, AT&T and Verizon are supposed to deploy their 5G wireless service on Wednesday after delaying it twice previously. The original plan was to roll out the service in December last year.

United Airlines said the US government's current 5G rollout plan will have a devastating impact on aviation, negatively affecting an estimated 1.25 million United passengers, at least 15,000 flights, and much-needed goods and tons of cargo traveling through more than 40 of the largest airports in the country annually.

When deployed next to runways, the 5G signals could interfere with the key safety equipment that pilots rely on to take off and land in inclement weather, the airlines said in a statement.

"We won't compromise on safety - full stop. But, governments in other countries have successfully designed policies to ensure the safe deployment of 5G technology and we're simply asking the US government to do the same. Otherwise, the radio altimeters on certain aircraft, which provide information to other safety systems like autopilot, heads-up displays, terrain warning, and pitch control, will be compromised and will result in significant restrictions on 787s, 777s, 737s, and regional aircraft in major cities like Houston, Newark, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago."

What is the issue?

The new 5G wireless services that mobile service providers like AT&T and Verizon want to roll out utilises a segment of the radio spectrum that is close to the spectrum used by altimeters in airplanes. Altimeters are devices that measure the height of the airplane above the ground.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has said that the C-Band 5G services that are set to roll out now can interfere and affect sensitive airplane instruments, like altimeters, and hamper low-visibility operations.

The airlines have also warned that the new wireless services could render a large number of widebody aircrafts unusable and lead to potentially stranding 'tens of thousands of Americans overseas and cause chaos for US flights'.

"Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded," wrote the chief executives of American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and others in a letter, as reported by Reuters.

To figure out which planes can successfully take off and land under these circumstances, the FAA is going to conduct a survey first and allow planes with “accurate, reliable altimeters to operate around high-power 5G”. Planes with older altimeters “will not be allowed to make landings under low-visibility conditions”.

FAA had said on January 14 that “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”.

A group of US-based airlines, consisting of the likes of United Airlines, American Airlines, Delta Airlines and FedEx, said in a letter to the FAA that “5G internet deployment could cause catastrophic aviation crisis”. The group also said that 5G should be implemented everywhere in the US except within two miles of airport runways of affected airports.

What does the US government have to say?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), that auctions the radio spectrums in the US, has said that the C-Band is safe to be used around air traffic. In 2020, they have also set a buffer between the 5G band and the radio spectrum that planes use to resolve the safety concerns.

However, US’ Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson “saw a potential problem” and asked AT&T and Verizon to “hold off activating C-Band 5G near an undetermined number of ‘priority airports’ while the FAA conducted further study”.

What can Verizon and AT&T do now?

While both the companies have dismissed these concerns, AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg have offered to “reduce the power of their 5G networks near airports”, as has been done in France.

CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, has also pointed out that about 40 countries have already deployed C-Band 5G without any “reports of harmful interference with aviation equipment”.

"The laws of physics are the same in the United States and France. If U.S. airlines are permitted to operate flights every day in France, then the same operating conditions should allow them to do so in the United States,” Stankey and Vestberg wrote in a letter to Buttigieg and Dickson.

"While the airline industry faces many challenges, 5G is not one of them," Vestberg said in a company memo.

For the time being though, the 5G wireless services’ roll out has been pushed back by two weeks which will give the FAA and the service providers time to implement the agreement.

The companies will be allowed to launch their services this month “under the already-granted FCC licenses” and the airlines have until Friday to give these companies a list of around 50 airports where the power of 5G C-Band services should be reduced till July 5.

“Until July, the telecoms will talk to the FAA and airlines about potential long-term measures regarding 5G service near airports. However, under terms of the agreement with the FAA, AT&T and Verizon will have sole power to decide if any changes in service will be made,” reports state.

While the companies have taken steps to soothe all the concerns, airlines are apprehensive about their flights and foresee cancellations and delays in the future. More than 10,000 US flights have been cancelled since Christmas Eve due to bad weather and Covid 19-related labour shortages, and this issue will just add to the numbers.

Closer to home, companies like Air India have said that they are going to curtail or revise flights to the US from January 19. Apart from Air India, United Airlines and American Airlines are other two carriers that operate flights between India and the US.

What does this mean for India?

For now it means that flights to the US might be affected. However, in the long run, with 5G deployment in India on the cards for this year, it is possible that Indian airlines might raise similar concerns as the US ones.

This will primarily depend on the condition of the airplanes and its equipment and certain older aircrafts may be grounded to deal with this issue. Service provider companies might also offer to reduce 5G power around airports as AT&T and Verizon have offered in the US.

Vodafone, Airtel, and Jio are all working on testing 5G across the country right now and the service is expected to roll out this year.
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