Six Myths For When Your Flight Gets Canceled

By Diana Furchtgott-Roth, Contributor

Next week AT&T and Verizon are going to initiate service on their new fast 5G networks, after a 6-week pause at the request of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA has issued hundreds of notices that the new 5G transmitters could interfere with radio altimeters, devices on aircraft that enable pilots to know how far the plane is from the ground. Your airline flight or emergency helicopter evacuation may be rerouted or canceled. Here are six myths as to how this will play out.

1. This will be over soon. After Secretary Pete Buttigieg’s January 3, 2022, letter to Verizon and AT&T CEOs Hans Vestberg and John Stankey thanking them for a two-week delay in rolling out 5G, and for additional mitigations, many people thought that the interference problem was solved. It was not solved because the FAA remains concerned that the 5G transmitters will interfere with the radio altimeters on planes and helicopters at the end of the two-week period. Since the FAA is in charge of keeping aircraft and passengers safe, it will continue to restrict certain operations at many airports around the country.

Not only is the problem not solved, but it will take years before high-powered 5G services can coexist with flight operations to the satisfaction of the FAA.

2. Planes can swap out old radio altimeters for new ones. Even when the radio altimeters are identified, it will take years to get them out of planes and helicopters. Radio altimeters are not like EZ pass transponders that can be swapped in and out of cars with a notification to the billing authority. They are tied into planes’ navigation systems. The newer altimeters automatically trigger certain safety functions when they sense that the plane or helicopter is too close to the ground. That is why newer altimeters do not necessarily cause fewer problems than older altimeters. It is going to take time to find out which radio altimeters are affected by which power levels.

3. The FCC is in charge. Many people think that wireless companies primarily answer to their regulator, the Federal Communications Commission. What we have seen over the past month is the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon negotiating directly with the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the FCC nowhere to be seen. Over the coming weeks and months, the pressure from the wireless carriers will primarily be coming from decisions by the FAA.

4. Only 50 airports are affected. On January 7, 2022, the FAA released a list of 50 airports that will have buffer zones. Some people might think that only these airports will see interference from 5G transmitters, and that other airports need not be concerned about such interference. This is not true. This week the FAA released a list of over 1,500 Notices to Air Missions (NOTAMs), many warning pilots about hazardous conditions all over the country due to 5G and banning certain automatic landing systems. Pilots were warned of problems not only at airports that were left off the FAA list, but also problems at airports on the FAA list. For example, NOTAM 01/106, for San Francisco International Airport, an airport on the FAA list, states that certain operations are unauthorized, and warns of radio altimeters being unreliable due to 5G C-Band interference. Similar NOTAMs were issued for other airports on the list, including John F. Kennedy International in New York and Newark Liberty International in New Jersey.

5. The American public won’t notice. Some observers thought that the American public would not notice dangers to air operations, and that they could move ahead with rolling out 5G services irrespective of the FAA’s concerns. Larry Kudlow, former director of President Trump’s National Economic Council, said on Fox on December 23, 2021, referring to his tenure in the White House, “We actually fought the FAA and we won….The FAA is belly-aching about 5G, the airlines are belly-aching about 5G. We ignored them ‘cuz the science said don’t worry about it.” At the time, Kudlow was going against the advice of the expert agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation, which clearly articulated the dangers of 5G interference in a December 2020 letter from FAA Administrator Steve Dickson and DOT Deputy Secretary Steve Bradbury. However, the FAA has a mission to keep Americans safe, and it will fulfill that mission. The disruptions to commercial aviation and to emergency helicopter services will certainly come to the attention of the public.

6. Other countries are doing fine. One frequent myth is that other countries are moving forward with the same power levels of 5G and that they are not seeing any planes crash. First, the FAA has higher standards than some other countries, and second, power levels in other countries are lower. The FAA has published a chart showing that power levels of 5G transmitters in the United States are 2.5 times as high as the ones in France, and that antennas in France point downwards, in order to avoid interfering with aircraft. Similarly, Canada has announced limits on 5G power, including requiring antennas to point downwards and placing exclusion zones around 26 airports. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency has also issued a Safety Information Bulletin warning of 5G interference.

All parties in these discussions want 5G and airline safety to coexist. But getting there will take longer than most people expect.

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