Major US airlines warn of flight disruptions Wednesday as new 5G service starts

Jan 18, 2022, 6:32 AM | Updated: Jan 19, 2022, 6:10 am
flight, 5G, Alaska Airlines...
Alaska Airlines planes are parked at gates with Mount Rainier in the background at sunrise, March 1, 2021, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

If you have a flight scheduled for Wednesday, you might want to check with your airline. Most major U.S. carriers are warning of potential flight cancellations and delays as new 5G frequencies are fired up by cell phone companies that could interfere with landing airplanes.

It just got easier to use the cell phone parking lot at Sea-Tac Airport

The new C-Band 5G frequencies that go active overnight are close to the frequencies used by the radio altimeters on planes. These altimeters use data from the ground to determine a plane’s altitude on landing.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the major airlines are concerned there could be interference from the new 5G system that could mess with the altimeters, and they want the rollout of these new 5G frequencies delayed until more testing can be done.

“Countless flights could be negatively impacted in some way, leaving passengers and flight crews stranded, angry and frustrated,” Alaska Airlines told KIRO Newsradio in a statement. “The consequences for our airline and all other U.S. carriers is incalculable, but this crisis is completely avoidable with a tailored, temporary and common-sense delay.”

Alaska Airlines cancels 20% of Seattle departures over two days due to weather

Aviation insider Mike Stengel of AeroDynamic Advisory doesn’t expect this to be as big of an issue as the airlines are making it out to be.

“I don’t think there is any threat to the flying public,” Stengel said. “I think the FAA is being very cautious in this rollout.”

Around the world, 40 countries have already rolled out 5G and have seen no problems with interference with the radio altimeters. Stengel also said they are only used in rare occasions anyway.

“The days where that is required are relatively infrequent,” he said. “These are days where the fog is pretty thick or the cloud ceiling is below 200 feet and visibility less than a half-mile.”

The radio altimeters are engaged when auto-pilot is being used to the fly the plane all the way through landing, but most landings are done with a pilot at the controls. Even in bad weather, the pilot can disengage the auto-pilot at 200 feet and take over.

And most large airports, including Sea-Tac, will have restricted 5G zones to limit the potential interference.

“There’s a buffer zone around critical airports that have these low-visibility approaches, and they can also play with the power levels of the 5G antennas, so there’s even a greater safety buffer between the band that they’re using and the band that’s required for aircraft instruments,” Stengel said.

Despite that, Emirates Airline announced Tuesday that it would be suspending flights to Sea-Tac — as well as eight other U.S. airports — over concerns related to 5G signals.

A lot of aviation insiders are framing this as a fight between the FAA, which governs airplanes, and the FCC, which governs the radio frequencies, with the public caught in the middle.

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(Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)...
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Major US airlines warn of flight disruptions Wednesday as new 5G service starts