If you weren't aware until recently that soon-to-be activated 5G wireless signals may be about to send America's air travel system into disarray, you'd be forgiven — apparently the federal government failed to notice the looming issue too. Now the Biden administration is down to the wire (again) after a decision temporarily blocking 5G from being switched on earlier in January delayed the deadline to 12:01am Wednesday. But airlines and industry leaders say "the harm that will result from deployment on January 19 is substantially worse than we originally anticipated."
As the government was auctioning off bandwidth for the development and use of new technologies, they apparently didn't put enough consideration into the fact that 5G's C-band frequencies can mess with radio altimeters on most aircraft, the instrument that allows bad-weather landings and is part of numerous other pieces of safety equipment that allow planes to take-off, fly, and land.
Put more simply, and as the FAA warned this week, 5G signal interference with radio altimeters could mean some planes don't know when they're approaching or have reached the ground at which point systems automatically switch to landing mode, an issue "which could prevent an aircraft from stopping on the runway."
"Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded,” said a letter sent to the Biden administration on Monday by executives representing Delta, United, American, Southwest, Jet Blue, FedEx, and UPS. "Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” the air transportation leaders warned. "To be blunt, the nation's commerce will grind to a halt."
Here's what the airlines warn is coming, and where the Biden administration has failed to take meaningful action:
First, we understand that most of the 50 large airports that were identified by the FAA for relief will still be subject to flight restrictions on January 19. The FAA’s statement yesterday minimizes the fact that they are not granting relief to airports that are used by most of the traveling and shipping public. Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded. This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays.
Second, flight restrictions will not be limited to poor weather operations. Because radio altimeters provide critical information to other safety and navigation systems in modern airplanes, multiple modern safety systems on aircraft will be deemed unusable causing a much larger problem than what we knew on January 5, 2022. Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded. In addition to the chaos caused domestically, this lack of usable widebody aircraft could potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas.
United Airlines also released a statement of its own on Monday warning that "the federal government's current 5G rollout plan will have a devastating impact on aviation" and estimated that more than one million of its passengers and some 15,000 flights would be affected. United's letter notes that "governments in other countries have successfully designed policies to ensure the safe deployment of 5G technology," adding "we're simply asking the US government to do the same."
JUST IN: United Airlines warns of “devastating impact” from Wednesday’s planned 5G rollout, requests a 2-mile buffer zone near runways of affected airports.— Pete Muntean (@petemuntean) January 18, 2022
So where is President Biden? Transportation Secretary Buttigieg? Another crisis for which they're apparently too busy to show up. The FAA has published more than 1,000 notices to air missions (or airmen, NOTAMs for short) related to 5G interference with radio altimeters that may exist around dozens of U.S. airports, then granted approval for roughly half of the commercial aircraft that operate in the United States to "conduct low-visibility landings," but there's still predictions of chaos for some of the country's busiest airports.
One would think the Biden White House, where a massive infrastructure package is among the few accomplishments in its first year, someone like Pete Buttigieg would have allocated some money to ensure air travel remains safe and consistent? Apparently not. Biden administration officials have insisted that safety and smooth operations are their priority, but the sky-is-falling reaction from airlines suggests Biden and company haven't done enough to address concerns.
In Tuesday's White House press briefing, Jen Psaki didn't have any reassurances to offer but said that conversations on the issue are ongoing to limit disruptions.