The new year is getting new challenges for the aviation industry.
Telecommunications giants are preparing the long-awaited rollout of 5G communications aimed at improving wireless connectivity in the US.
But the plan is meeting strong pushback from the airlines, aircraft manufacturers, and aviation trade organizations that tell 5G may adversely impact aviation security.
One key problem is how the deployment of 3.7-3.98 GHz 5G C-Band communications will impact radar altimeters on aircraft, also understood as radio altimeters.
The Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics describes radio altimeters as "the only sensor onboard a civil aircraft which provides a direct measurement of the clearance height of the aircraft over the terrain or other obstacles."
Aircraft flying over mountainous terrain, for example, might rely on radio altimeters to gauge their distance from the surface. And aircraft may also use radio altimeters when landing to gauge their altitude above the ground level reached to their altitude above mean sea level.
Turkish Airlines Boeing
Opponents claim 5G communications may interfere with the altimeters during critical phases of flight. The RTCA stated that “failures of these sensors can therefore direct to incidents with catastrophic results resulting in multiple fatalities,” in its report analyzing the impact of expanded 5G communications on aviation.
One such example, highlighted by the House of Representatives Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, is the Turkish Airlines Boeing 737-800 which suffered a fatal crash in 2009 after getting an “erroneous altitude reading” from one of its radio altimeters, as the Dutch Safety Board wrote.
Federal Aviation Administration
- The Federal Aviation Administration in earlier December especially addressed potential problems raised by 5G’s rollout by issuing regulations known as “airworthiness directives.” Airlines and other aircraft operators, as a result, are needed to limit operations that need a radio altimeter when “in the presence of 5G C-Band interference.”
“This [airworthiness directive] was prompted by a decision that radio altimeters cannot be relied upon to perform their intended function if they experience interference from wireless broadband operations in the 3.7-3.98 GHz frequency band (5G C-Band),” the Federal Aviation Administration wrote.
Airlines for America
- But airlines say that complying with the latest requirements will greatly disrupt regular operations. Airlines for America, the trade organization representing some of the country’s biggest airlines, surveyed its member airlines and issued a scathing report on how 5G may affect flights in 2022.
“For example, if the AD were applied in arrears to A4A members’ 2019 operations, around 345,000 passenger flights, 32 million passengers, and 5,400 cargo flights would have been affected in the form of delayed flights, diversions, or cancellations,” the organization told.
“We agree that 5G interference could adversely impact the capacity of aircraft to safely use,” Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun and Airbus Americas CEO Jeffrey Knittel wrote in a letter viewed by Reuters.
Verizon Communications, a 5G leader, pointed to other countries in which 5G and aviation currently co-exist as evidence against the aviation industry’s concerns.
“Air safety is of major significance, but there is no evidence that 5G operations using C-Band spectrum pose any risk to aviation security, as the real-world knowledge in dozens of countries already operating this spectrum for 5G confirms,” a Verizon spokesperson told Bloomberg.
Aerospace Industries Association
Airlines for America work with the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade association representing aircraft manufacturers and suppliers, and CTIA, the trade organization representing wireless companies, on a recent data-sharing partnership aimed at identifying issue areas in the 5G rollout.
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"The best technical experts from across both industries will be operating collectively to identify a path forward, in coordination with the FAA and FCC," the trio wrote in a report provided to Insider. "We acknowledge that by working collaboratively in good faith on a data-driven solution, we can reach our shared goal of deploying 5G while preserving aviation safety."
Airlines for America held short of filling an emergency lawsuit on Monday to stop the January 5 rollout and instead declared an agreement with AT&T and Verizon to delay 5G implementation until January
The rollout will proceed on that date but the next months would then see the DOT and FAA review the data to determine mitigation efforts for airports.
“We understand aviation safety and 5G can co-exist and we are sure to further collaboration and technical assessment will allay any issues,” AT&T told in a report.
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