Ross: Who gets to make the rules on aircraft safety?

Dec 21, 2021, 7:06 AM | Updated: 10:27 am
5G aircraft safety...
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

When the FAA issues an “airworthiness directive,” that’s a serious thing. Any aircraft that does not comply with an airworthiness directive cannot legally leave the ground.

And the FAA has issued an airworthiness directive concerning 5G, the miracle smartphone technology that will not only allow instant communication, but immersive communication, 3D movies, virtual environments, and self-driving cars.

But according to the FAA, 5G operates at a frequency that is too close to the ground radar used by commercial aircraft to keep them from hitting the ground. I read the whole directive, and it doesn’t mince words.

The FAA made “a determination that radio altimeters cannot be relied upon to perform their intended function if they experience interference from wireless broadband operations in the 5G band.”

That’s based on the work of a task force which concluded that there is “a major risk that 5G will cause the radio altimeter to either become inoperable or present misleading information.”

The directive points out that landing a plane depends on a pilot being able to trust the instruments to show exactly how close the ground is.

The smartphone people claim there’s no problem here, that the FAA is overreacting, and that U.S. planes have been safely landing in Europe’s 5G zones without incident. To which the FAA replies, yes, we know that, but here in the U.S., the rules on 5G, especially in rural areas, allow antennas to transmit a more powerful signal than in Europe.

Now as I recall, one of the many lessons of the 737 MAX is that the rules need to be made by independent regulators, not the corporations being regulated. Yes, they get to have a say, and the directive states that the FAA is ready to hear any evidence that interference is impossible, but they haven’t heard it yet.

So until they do, they are going to go airport by airport and decide where it’s safe to land.

I checked the 5G map, and it shows that AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile each have 5G antennas at the Port of Seattle parking garage. Maybe they’re not a problem, and maybe the main problem is in those rural areas where base stations are allowed to use a more powerful signal.

But this is for the FAA to decide, not the cell companies.

If it means you can’t stream “Spiderman 9” while you’re sitting in Concourse D, explain your problem to the person with the captain’s hat who just landed in the fog with 230 passengers.

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Ross: Who gets to make the rules on aircraft safety?