British Airways is among the airlines which cancelled US flights over fears the 5G rollout could impact navigation systems onboard some incoming planes.
The action is in response to fears that the activation of the C-band strand of the mobile phone service near American airports on Wednesday could disrupt planes’ navigation systems.
Boeing 777s are thought to be particularly at risk of being affected.
The rollout has gone ahead with 4,500 towers across the country but 500 towers that are near 88 unspecified airports are not being turned on due to fears the frequencies they emit could interfere with aircraft radar technology.
The pause on those towers was only decided yesterday afternoon – by which point some international airlines had cancelled flights using Boeing 777 aircraft.
The introduction of the technology has been halted in some parts of the US but is going ahead elsewhere.
British Airways is among the airlines cancelling US flights over fears the 5G rollout could impact navigation systems onboard some incoming planes. Pictured: British Airways planes
The issue has caused travel chaos at airports with cancelations, staff shortages and a lack of the right planes in the right place at the right time leading to mass disruption.
British Airways cancelled a handful of flights from Heathrow to Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco on Wednesday.
The airline said in a statement: ‘Safety is always our priority and although we had to cancel a handful of services, we’ve done everything we can to minimise inconvenience for our customers. We’ve changed the aircraft operating some of our flights and rebooked those on cancelled services onto alternatives.
‘We’re disappointed that, like other airlines, some of our customers’ travel plans have been disrupted.’
The carrier said some flights due to be operated by Boeing 777s are using different, larger aircraft such as the Airbus A380 to ensure people can still fly on the same day they booked.
Other airlines have made many more cancellations.
This graphic shows how the wireless spectrum used by 5G networks could interfere with altimeters, which measure a plane’s altitude and is especially important for low-visibility ops
Emirates suspended all its flights to nine US airports on Wednesday ‘until further notice’.
The Dubai-based carrier told customers the measure was ‘due to operational concerns associated with the planned deployment of 5G mobile network services in the US at certain airports’.
It added: ‘Emirates regrets any inconvenience caused. We are working closely with aircraft manufacturers and the relevant authorities to alleviate operational concerns, and we hope to resume our US services as soon as possible.’
What are US airlines worried about and could British planes be affected?
The debate about whether 5G has the potential to interfere with crucial aeroplane instruments is intense and unresolved.
What are the airlines worried about?
Airlines are concerned that the new 5G network could affect aircraft instruments including altimeters, which measure a plane’s distance from the ground.
This is because both the new 5G network and the altimeters will operate at a similar wavelength.
What are the networks saying?
AT&T and Verizon say there is no evidence their new network will interfere with aircraft operating systems. They have previously delayed the rollout to allow for more research to take place.
What is the view in the UK and Europe?
5G is not seen as a problem for aircraft in Britain or Europe, according to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Ofcom and EU Aviation Safety Authority.
All three insist there is no evidence 5G interferes with aircraft systems. 5G in Europe is on a different wavelength, which is seen as less likely to affect planes than the one used in America.
Other airlines to cancel flights include Air India, Japan-based ANA, Japan Airlines, and Korean Air.
Virgin Atlantic, which does not operate Boeing 777s, said it has not made any cancellations or aircraft type changes.
The concern over 5G in the US relates to its potential effect on aircraft altimeters, which measure altitude.
This does not have an impact on UK airports because the US uses a different frequency for 5G.
It comes as sources told Reuters that US network provider Verizon said it will temporarily not turn on about 500 towers near airports while the carriers and the US Government work on a permanent solution.
But details of the agreement, including the length of the pause for the rollout and a solution, were not disclosed.
Passengers and airlines are bracing for further delays and cancellations as the travel chaos shows no sign of stopping.
Scores of people have now been left stranded at airports, with many complaining on social media about their flights being cancelled due to the 5G rollout.
One passenger, identified as Siddhartha on Twitter, complained that he and other passengers were ‘not happy’ that their Air India flight from Delhi to San Francisco had been cancelled.
Travelers were seen crowded together at Indira Gandhi International Airport as they waited for more news.
Another passenger, identified as Kausi on Twitter, was left frustrated after they were told their Emirates flight to Chicago had been cancelled as soon as she landed in Dubai.
Kausi complained that she and other passengers were not left ‘stuck’ in airports.
A major issue for airlines has been their use of the Boeing 777 model, a long-range, wide-body aircraft, which is said to be particularly affected by the 5G signals.
It has prompted cancellations and a mad dash to change the aircrafts.
British Airways opted to switch aircraft on its daily flight to Los Angeles and will now use an Airbus A380, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters.
Germany’s Lufthansa also swapped out one kind of 747 for another on some US-bound flights.
Check in desks for BA are empty at Terminal 7 at JFK Airport, Queens, New York on January 19
The evolution of mobile broadband up to 5G
The evolution of the G system started in 1980 with the invention of the mobile phone which allowed for analogue data to be transmitted via phone calls.
Digital came into play in 1991 with 2G and SMS and MMS capabilities were launched.
Since then, the capabilities and carrying capacity for the mobile network has increased massively.
More data can be transferred from one point to another via the mobile network quicker than ever.
5G is expected to be 100 times faster than the currently used 4G.
Whilst the jump from 3G to 4G was most beneficial for mobile browsing and working, the step to 5G will be so fast they become almost real-time.
That means mobile operations will be just as fast as office-based internet connections.
Potential uses for 5g include:
- Simultaneous translation of several languages in a party conference call
- Self-driving cars can stream movies, music and navigation information from the cloud
- A full length 8GB film can be downloaded in six seconds.
5G is expected to be so quick and efficient it is possible it could start the end of wired connections.
By the end of 2020, industry estimates claim 50 billion devices will be connected to 5G.
Industry sources said Boeing had issued technical advisories noting potential interference, but that flight restrictions were in the hands of the FAA, which has for now limited operations at key airports unless airlines qualify for special approvals.
A spokesman for Boeing had no immediate comment.
Similar 5G mobile networks have been deployed in dozens of other countries – sometimes with concessions like reducing the power of the networks near airports, as France has done.
But in the US, the issue has pitted the Federal Aviation Administration and the airlines against the Federal Communications Commission and the telecoms companies.
The 5G service uses a segment of the radio spectrum that is close to that used by radio altimeters, which are devices that measure the height of aircraft above the ground and help pilots land in low visibility.
The FCC, which set a buffer between the 5G band and the spectrum that planes use, determined that it could be used safely in the vicinity of air traffic.
AT&T and Verizon have said their equipment will not interfere with aircraft electronics.
But FAA officials saw a potential problem, and the telecom companies agreed to a pause while it is addressed.
AT&T and Verizon on Tuesday agreed to temporarily defer turning on some wireless towers near key airports in a bid to avert further disruption to U.S. flights.
President Joe Biden hailed the agreement, saying it ‘will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled.’
The row erupted on Monday when US airline CEOs begged the Biden administration to stop AT&T and Verizon from rolling out their C-band 5G technology.
The telecoms giants had been planning to launch the technology across the US on Wednesday.
Board shows a British Airways flight from New York to London is among those being cancelled
Both AT&T and Verizon have reluctantly agreed to halt turning on 500 towers of concern until a resolution can be found, in order to avoid a mass cancelation of flights across America and travel chaos that would up end the already distressed supply chain and scupper consumer travel.
It seemed to appease domestic airlines but did not calm international fear.
The FAA has said it will allow planes with accurate, reliable altimeters to operate around high-power 5G. But planes with older altimeters will not be allowed to make landings under low-visibility conditions.
Part of the problem, according to the FAA, is the signal strength of the 5G towers and the orientation of their antennae.
‘Base stations in rural areas of the United States are permitted to emit at higher levels in comparison to other countries which may affect radio altimeter equipment accuracy and reliability,’ the FAA said in December.
The FCC’s chairwoman said in a statement that the 5G ‘deployment can safely co-exist with aviation technologies in the United States, just as it does in other countries around the world.’
Pictured: Altimeters onboard planes are a key tool for pilots landing in low-visibility conditions
The UK’s CAA, the mobile phone industry and Ofcom released statements earlier this month in response to UK concerns. They said they did not share the worries of that in the U.S. at this stage.
A spokesperson for the CAA, the UK equivalent to the FAA, said: ‘We are aware of reports that suggest that the frequency band being used for 5G in a number of countries could potentially pose a risk of interference with aircraft radio altimeters.
‘There have been no reported incidents of aircraft systems being affected by 5G transmissions in U.K. airspace, but we are nonetheless working with Ofcom and the Ministry of Defence to make sure that the deployment of 5G in the UK does not cause any technical problems for aircraft.’
A spokesperson for Ofcom said: ‘We’re aware that the aviation sector is looking at this; we’ve done our own technical analysis and are yet to see any evidence that would give us cause for concern.’
Gareth Elliott, head of policy and communications at Mobile UK, which represents mobile networks, said: ‘The UK’s mobile network operators follow all health and safety guidelines and engage with a variety of industries on interference.
‘Mobile operators are actively coordinating with the aviation authorities to ensure no interference in the UK.’
HOW DOES 5G AFFECT PLANES?
AT&T and Verizon have spent tens of billions of dollars to license the 3.7 to 3.98 GHz frequency range for the new high-speed C-Band 5G service.
The C-band is a portion of the electromagnetic spectrum in the microwave range of frequencies ranging from 4.0 to 8.0 gigahertz (GHz), although the US Federal Communications Commission has designated 3.7-4.2 GHz as C band too.
The problem is that wireless spectrum used by 5G networks could interfere with radio altimeters, which measure a plane’s altitude – especially important for low-visibility operations.
Airlines fear that C-band 5G signals will disrupt planes’ navigation systems, particularly those used in bad weather.
This interference with radio altimeters, which measure a plane’s altitude, could lead to the loss of radar altitude information or, worse, incorrect radar altitude information unknowingly being generated, they say.
It is not seen as a problem in Britain or Europe, according to the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, Ofcom and EU Aviation Safety Authority.
All three insist there is no evidence 5G interferes with aircraft systems.
However, in Europe 5G networks work in the 3.4-3.8GHz spectrum so regulators on this side of the Atlantic don’t appear as concerned about it being close to the 4.2-4.4GHz band for radio altimeters.
It seems the basis for US airlines’ fears is that mobile networks’ traffic from the top edge of 3.98GHz might bleed into the neighbouring altimeter band.
‘The issue is that the C-band frequency used for 5G in the US is a little bit close to the frequencies used by altimeters,’ Roslyn Layton, vice president at Strand Consult, told Tech Monitor.
The radio altimeter is a critical aviation safety technology that indicates the airplane’s height and supports safe landing.
It operates in the 4.2-4.4 GHz spectrum band; cell phones are currently not permitted to operate in that band or any nearby band to prevent interference.
However, if telecommunication authorities reallocate the 3.7-4.2 GHz band for 5G, the risk of interference could increase.
The airlines want 5G signals to be excluded from ‘the approximate two miles of airport runways at affected airports as defined by the FAA on 19 January 2022’.
This would ensure that no airplanes are affected by the 5G interference, they say.
There have been fatal accidents associated with incorrect radar altitude, most recently Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 in Amsterdam in 2009.
The FAA has warned that potential interference could affect sensitive airplane instruments such as altimeters and make an impact on low-visibility operations.
So this threat could compromise key safety systems and result in suspended passenger and cargo flights.
For passengers, flights may be cancelled or have to be diverted to other airports if 5G towers are deployed too close to airport runways.
But most aviation regulators are content the risks posed by 5G to planes are low, according to Layton.
‘This whole thing is unhelpful for the world’s airport regulators,’ she said. ‘They have blessed this technology years ago, so what does it look like when the FAA all of sudden says ‘there’s a problem’? It’s really inconvenient and a bit embarrassing.’
AT&T and Verizon have agreed to buffer zones around 50 airports to reduce interference risks.
In the UK, Ofcom said the country had had 5G deployments and other services in the bands near to radio altimeters for years and there have been no known cases of interference.
Similarly, other countries are already using these frequencies for 5G and other wireless services with no reported incidents of interference to aviation equipment.
The issue in the US is that it’s about to deploy these services, so there’s concerns of the effects deployment may have.