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Major cargo airlines warn 5G could disrupt over 10K flights

AT&T, Verizon delay 5G service after White House intervenes in dispute with airline industry

5G cell towers near airports could disrupt passenger and cargo travel because of interference with aircraft instruments used for landing in poor weather. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

(Updated Jan. 19, 1 A.M. ET)

Air cargo carriers say customers will face significant shipping delays and costs if big telecommunications companies rollout new 5G wireless service without taking steps to mitigate potential interference with safety instruments on aircraft. 

On Tuesday, AT&T and Verizon, under pressure from the White House, announced they will delay deployment of 5G service at towers near some airports. The developments followed an airline industry warning the day prior that turning on cellular towers near airports would wreak havoc on travel and shipping that depend on aviation. 

More than 5,400 cargo flights per year face delays, diversions or cancellations if Federal Aviation Administration directives last month to prohibit landings in low-visibility conditions at airports ringed by cellular towers remain in place because of the 5G startup, according to an economic impact statement from Airlines for America (A4A). 

The impact analysis was based on a survey of the airline group’s members, which include cargo airlines Atlas Air (NASDAQ: AAWW), FedEx Express (NYSE: FDX) and UPS (NYSE: UPS). The all-cargo carriers estimate the directives will cost them $400 million annually because of disruptions to time-sensitive operations.

The directives would disrupt about 345,000 passenger flights and cost passenger carriers $1.7 billion in additional operating costs per year, A4A said. The group added that its estimates are conservative and that the cascading effect of delays on network operations, extra efforts to restore service and lost productivity could easily double the impact estimates and exacerbate crew shortages as pilots run up against daily duty limits. 

United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) canceled many overseas flights Wednesday because of uncertainty about whether its planes could come back and land. Emirates, Air India, Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways have cancelled flights to select U.S. cities too as a precaution in response to Boeing instructions. Freight brokers said they were monitoring bookings in case airlines alter their schedules or substitute aircraft without warning.

For now, FAA restrictions are in effect and will apply when the cloud cover drops below 200 feet. Delta Air Lines (NYSE: DAL) said it is planning for the possibility of weather-related cancellations caused by the deployment of 5G service near dozens of airports, start Wednesday.

“Airline customers rely on airlines to transport time-sensitive perishable products such as pharmaceuticals, vaccines, organs, critical supply chain parts, and many other high-value items. The lack of serious mitigations on the part of 5G telecom companies to address interference issues will significantly disrupt and harm the economy at a time when supply chains are already stretched thin,” the airline lobbying group said in a blog post.

Steve Alterman, president of the Cargo Airline Association, agreed that the 5G implementation needs a pause so the FAA, the Federal Communications Commission, airlines, aircraft and altimeter manufacturers, and the telecom companies can work out a solution for all elements to coexist. 

“The impact on the cargo sector would be dramatic and potentially devastating,” he told American Shipper. “To the extent services are disrupted due to 5G interference, the ripple effects through the economy will be significant.”

The Cargo Airline Association represents ABX Air and Kalitta Air, in addition to Atlas, FedEx and UPS.

In early 2021, the FCC auctioned spectrum in the C-band adjacent to frequency used by radio altimeters, which is critical for safe landing in poor weather conditions. AT&T and Verizon, which spent $80 billion for those signals, grudgingly agreed in early January to postpone turning them on until Jan. 19 and also to weaken, or fade, the signal around some airports for six months. It’s an approach phone companies have used in about 40 other countries. The telecoms say that will give the FAA and plane manufacturers time to determine if interference is theoretical or real. 

T-Mobile’s nationwide 5G network does not use the C-band spectrum the FAA is concerned about.

The radio altimeter informs aircraft how high they are above land or water when visibility is low. The instrument must detect faint signals off the ground to measure altitude, much like radar, and overlapping signals could degrade its function if the altimeter is unable to sufficiently deflect them, according to the FAA.

Now the agency is discovering that certain airplane types are more impacted than others by the radio altimeter interference.

Last week, the FAA notified operators of Boeing 787s that they need to allow for longer stopping distance when landing at airports where 5G service is deployed because a compromised radio altimeter can slow the start of thrust reversers and speedbrakes. Other systems that may be affected by 5G interference include the autopilot flight direction, auto throttle system, collision avoidance system and ground proximity warning system.

Boeing also issued guidance to airlines operating the 737 MAX that performance at takeoff and landing could be impaired and to reduce either cargo or passenger weight.

On Sunday, the FAA gave the green light to about 45% of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at many airports where 5G will be deployed, saying the Boeing and Airbus planes have altimeters that coexist with the C-band signals. The combination of aircraft and altimeter approvals opens up runways at up to 48 of the 88 airports most directly affected by the 5G interference.

But A4A on Monday asked the Biden administration to immediately intervene to prevent significant operational disruptions, saying the potential harms are worse than originally anticipated in part because most of the 50 large airports identified by the FAA for relief will still be subject to flight restrictions, putting 1,100 flights at risk of delay. Those airports handle the bulk of travel and shipment volumes, it noted.

The airline group said the new information about impacts to other safety and navigation systems means that there are “huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded,” including many widebody aircraft used in international service. Cargo owners and logistics companies heavily rely on twin-aisle passenger jets and widebody freighters to deliver imports and exports.

It specifically asked the White House to require a 2-mile buffer around airport runways.

A4A President Nicholas Calio expressed appreciation for AT&T and Verizon’s willingness to pause 5G deployment, but said the group has not seen details of the agreement yet. The Air Line Pilots Association said it will feel comfortable until a permanent fix is found.

Reps. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, and Rick Larson, D-Washington, who respectively chair the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Aviation Subcommittee, also welcomed the agreement by AT&T and Verizon to delay 5G implementation. 

“The reality is that U.S. national airspace is the most complex in the world and is not subject to many of the mandatory mitigations seen in other countries. It’s time for the FAA, airlines, manufacturers, the telecom industry, and airports to work together on a schedule to implement long-term measures at affected airports so that the laudable goal of implementing 5G technologies can coexist with the aviation sector without disruption,” they said.

In an interview on CNN, DeFazio blamed the last-minute timeout on FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump appointee, for ignoring warnings not to sell the C-band close to the radio altimeter frequency and the telecom carriers for not providing data about their deployment until the Wednesday before Christmas.

“Every other country on earth has regulated the telecoms. They make them point their signals away from flight paths. They make them operate at lower power. They have exclusion zones. Here,” the chairman said, “it’s a Wild West free-for-all and the industry says we can put these towers where we want. And it’s proprietary information where they are. So we’re having trouble walking our way through this.”

In Japan, 5G cell towers close to airports operate at 5% of normal strength.

Daniel Elwell, the acting FAA administrator during the Trump administration, concurred that telecom companies have not been forthcoming with information, such as station locations and their power.

Regulators and the two industries will now work airport-by-airport through mitigation strategies they can take. How long that will take is unclear.  

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.


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Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government coverage and news analysis, and was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. Eric is based in Portland, Oregon. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]