Airlines cancel some flights after reduced 5G rollout in US

CHARLOTTE — Some flights to and from the U.S. were canceled on Wednesday even after AT&T and Verizon scaled back the rollout of high-speed wireless service 5G that could interfere with aircraft technology that measures altitude.

The decision on the rollout from the telecommunication companies was announced Tuesday as the Biden administration tried to broker a settlement between the telecom companies and the airlines over a rollout of new 5G service, scheduled for Wednesday.

Airlines want the new service to be banned within two miles of airport runways.

The cell companies offered a compromise after several delays over the issue. They created a 6-month “buffer zone” around 50 major airports, including Charlotte Douglas. It will block the 5G signal for about a mile around the runway.

Airlines warned that there could be huge disruptions in air travel Wednesday.

According to FlightAware, there were about 1,200 delays and nearly 300 cancellations.

There were two at Charlotte-Douglas.

That is a far cry from what some said Tuesday would happen.

However, Capt. Dennis Tajer, from the Allied Pilots Association, had strong words Tuesday about the situation.

“Not on my watch, you’re not going to put my 170 passengers, plus crew, on a test airplane and see what happens,” he said.

He said we could see a major disruption in air travel if 5G coverage goes live as planned for Wednesday.

“What the FCC and cell companies are proposing -- as they are proposing today -- is reckless, it’s unsafe, and it puts our passengers at risk,” Tajer said.

AT&T said it would delay turning on new cell towers around runways at some airports — it did not say how many or for how long — and work with federal regulators to settle the dispute.

CLICK here for a message from American Airlines COO David Seymour.

Statement from AT&T:

“At our sole discretion we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment,” AT&T said. “We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner. We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers.”

A short time later, Verizon said it will launch its 5G network but added, “we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports.” It blamed airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration, saying they “have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports” although it is working in more than 40 countries.

Statement from Verizon:

“Verizon is proud to lead the nation in 5G. Tomorrow, Verizon will launch its 5G Ultra Wideband network which will enable more than 90 million Americans to experience the transformative speed, reliability and power of this game-changing network on the go or in their homes or businesses. Americans have been clamoring for 5G and tomorrow we will deliver it,” a Verizon spokesperson said. “As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries. Thanks to the best team in the industry for delivering this technology which promises a revolutionary next step in wireless communications including tremendous benefits for our nation.”

The announcements came after the airline industry issued a dire warning about the impact a new type of 5G service would have on flights. CEOs of the nation’s largest airlines said interference with aircraft systems would be worse than they originally thought, making many flights impossible.

“To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt” unless the service is blocked near major airports, the CEOs said in a letter Monday to federal officials including Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has previously taken the airlines’ side in the matter.

President Joe Biden said the agreements by AT&T and Verizon “will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90% of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled.” He said the administration will keep working with both sides to reach a permanent solution around key airports.

In their statements, the cell companies indicated they would move forward with their plans with that buffer in place.

However, the news doesn’t seem to sit well with airlines. The American Airlines COO sent a memo out to staff Tuesday afternoon warning of problems on Wednesday, saying, “As long as 5G is deployed, we anticipate we’ll experience delays, diversions and cancellations that are well beyond our control.”

So what is the problem?

The new high-speed wireless service uses a segment of the radio spectrum, C-Band, that is close to that used by altimeters, which are devices that measure the height of aircraft above the ground. Altimeters are used to help pilots land when visibility is poor, and they link to other systems on planes.

In other words, the 5G signal emitted from these towers could interfere with at least 17 instruments that pilots rely on for essential flight information. Those instruments include altimeters.

AT&T and Verizon say their equipment will not interfere with aircraft electronics, and that the technology is being safely used in many other countries.

However, the CEOs of 10 passenger and cargo airlines including American, Delta, United and Southwest say that 5G will be more disruptive than earlier thought because dozens of large airports that were to have buffer zones to prevent 5G interference with aircraft will still be subject to of flight restrictions announced last week by the FAA. They add that those restrictions won’t be limited to times when visibility is poor.

“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,” the CEOs said.

The showdown between two industries and their rival regulators — the FAA and the Federal Communications Commission, which oversees radio spectrum — threatens to further disrupt the aviation industry, which has been hammered by the pandemic for nearly two years.

The crisis over 5G service has been building up for a long time

This was a crisis that was years in the making.

The airline industry and the FAA say that they have tried to raise alarms about potential interference from 5G C-Band but the FCC ignored them.

The telecoms, the FCC and their supporters argue that C-Band and aircraft altimeters operate far enough apart on the radio spectrum to avoid interference. They also say that the aviation industry has known about C-Band technology for several years but did nothing to prepare — airlines chose not to upgrade altimeters that might be subject to interference, and the FAA failed to begin surveying equipment on planes until the last few weeks.

After rival T-Mobile got what is called mid-band spectrum from its acquisition of Sprint, AT&T and Verizon spent tens of billions of dollars for C-Band spectrum in a government auction run by the FCC to shore up their own mid-band needs, then spent billions more to build out new networks that they planned to launch in early December.

In response to concern by the airlines, however, they initially agreed to delay the service until early January.

Captain Tajer said the deadline to roll out 5G should be pushed back again until they can be assured the planes are safe.

“There is no deadline on safety,” he said. “It gets done or it doesn’t get done. Planes fly or they don’t fly. Their choice right now.”

Late on New Year’s Eve, Buttigieg and FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson asked the companies for another delay, warning of “unacceptable disruption” to air service.

AT&T CEO John Stankey and Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg rejected the request in a letter that had a scolding, even mocking tone. But they had second thoughts after intervention that reached the White House. The CEOs agreed to the second, shorter delay but implied that there would be no more compromises.

In that deal, the telecoms agreed to reduce the power of their networks near 50 airports for six months, similar to wireless restrictions in France. In exchange, the FAA and the Transportation Department promised not to further oppose the rollout of 5G C-Band.

For more information from the FAA, click here. For more information about the buffer zones, click the Jan. 7 statement at this link.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

(WATCH BELOW: Airlines again warn of potential disruption from 5G rollout)