Launch of 5G near airports delayed amid debate over aircraft interference

SEATTLE — Airlines say 5G cellular towers close to runways might interfere with landing systems.

After airlines warned of “catastrophic disruptions” from the launch of 5G mobile service near airports, Verizon and AT&T said they won’t turn on the service around airports for now.

When clouds are low or fog is dense, pilots rely on radar altimeters to land.

“Basically, it just fires signals down to the ground and measures where they are,” said pilot and aviation expert John Nance.

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration said altimeters could be disrupted when 5G service is activated near airports.

Wireless carriers dispute there could be issues.

“The truth lies someplace in the murky interior of the debate, because we really don’t know whether or not there’s a potential interference,” said Nance.

Nance said any interference likely wouldn’t cause a crash but would engage safety systems, causing a pilot to abort a landing and try again, disrupting air travel.

Congressman Rick Larsen of Everett chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee. He said the Federal Communications Commission should have considered the impact on airlines sooner.

“It is worth taking the pause and coming to a resolution on mitigation measures,” said Larsen.

Associate professor Chris Ridell is an expert in hardware and communication systems at the University of Washington.

“Personally, I’m not concerned at all. I would have no problem riding on an airplane when this rolls out,” said Ridell.

He said radio systems are carefully designed to avoid interference and said there’s no evidence 5G will cause problems for airplanes.

“They’re going to find these types of systems really do not interfere with commercial aviation,” Ridell said.

Aviation experts say 5G service in the U.S. will be stronger than in Europe and the airspace in the U.S. is more complex.

Larsen calls the delay around airports a stopgap measure and he is scheduling a hearing to sort out the technical details.

The FAA released the following statement:

“The FAA issued new approvals Wednesday that allow an estimated 62 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at airports where wireless companies deployed 5G C-band.

“The new safety buffer announced Tuesday around airports in the 5G deployment further expanded the number of airports available to planes with previously cleared altimeters to perform low-visibility landings. The FAA early Wednesday cleared another three altimeters.

“Even with these approvals, flights at some airports may still be affected. The FAA also continues to work with manufacturers to understand how radar altimeter data is used in other flight control systems. Passengers should check with their airlines for latest flight schedules.

“Airplane models with one of the five cleared altimeters include some Boeing 717, 737, 747, 757, 767, 777, MD-10/-11 and Airbus A300, A310, A319, A320, A330, A340, A350 and A380 models.

“For additional 5G information, including the airport list, please visit www.faa.gov/5g.”