The FAA Is Overreacting To 5G, And That’s Why Airlines Are Freaking Out

At a question and answer session with pilots earlier this month, American Americans CEO Doug Parker talked about the deployment of 5G and the challenges that poses for the airline. View From The Wing reviewed a recording of this session.

I’ve been trying to figure this out, and have been genuinely confused. I do not have the technical expertise myself, so have been asking questions and getting unsatisfying answers around why C-band 5G creates a conflict with aviation.

  • Countries around the world use the C-band for 5G safely, with less of a frequency buffer than there will be in the United States.

  • Other governments, like Australia’s, see no technical issue with what the FCC had done.

  • The buffer comes out of FCC studies that included airline feedback.

  • There’s been testing of equipment that’s shown no interference, and I haven’t see equally good studies showing that there’s a problem.

When I’ve been pitched by pilots unions about the need to stop the 5G rollout, questions I’ve asked about this have gone unresponded to. Note that this isn’t a question of government regulation, it’s a conflict between two agencies (the FCC which studied and then auctioned off the spectrum, and then the FAA which decided it would limit flying as a result) and in some sense airlines are caught in the middle.

So I was especially interested to hear Doug Parker’s take when offering something other than soundbites, in front of an audience of the airline’s pilots. And he seems to focus on an overly conservative FAA. He seems to suggest American Airlines cares not because 5G rollout would be unsafe, but because the FAA was going to react to the rollout in a way that would have limited the airline’s operations.

The FCC is an independent agency of the US government..they dictate how frequencies are deployed. Some years ago the law allowed them to put out that’s where we are, unbeknownst at least to me..this has been going on for awhile…

The long and short of it is it was November I think this was ready to get turned on. Thankfully organizations like APA and ALPA and others said wait a second which got us a one month delay and then a two month delay. But as of January 4th they were coming on.

And where it really came to the level of ‘hair on fire’ at least for the U.S. airlines is where the FAA said this is coming, here’s an airworthiness directive, that said as this rolls out we’re going to start issuing NOTAMs and as we learned what those were they’re…in general the concern of course is the radio altimeters and if there’s a concern about the radio altimeters not being somehow impacted because we don’t know enough and again I’ll stress no one is saying for certain there’ll be an issue it’s just that the level of safety that we’re all used to and the FAA demands they didn’t feel they had the information to say for certain there wouldn’t be some issue. So if we’re not certain there wouldn’t be some issue then we’re not going to take any risk whatsoever.

Parker explained that the FAA’s reaction was going to be highly disruptive.

Had we turned it on on the 5th, because the FAA was not comfortable it had the information it needed to be sure that 5G being turned on everywhere in the United States, had that happened NOTAMs would have had us flying with Cat 1 only…The example David’s given me that I like using, through all these difficult operations that you’ve seen of late. There were two days in the last couple of weeks of December..if we could only fly Cat 1 Dallas and DFW wouldn’t have opened until 10 a.m.

If DFW doesn’t open until 10 a.m. that’s 400 cancellations. And that’s if we knew about it the night before. That’s if we don’t start launching airplanes and then divert.. we didn’t cancel 400 flights on the mainline through all of this mess. Those are two days that were perfectly fine operations.

Now, there’s a concern beyond Instrument Landing System operations.

The altimeter is used for other parts of the airplane…It’s tied to the heads up display. Boeing has it tied with tail strikes on the 777-300s, all sorts of things that if you’re concerned about the use of the altimater we’re not going to be flying 777-300s into any affected airport.

Parker made clear he doesn’t blame Verizon or AT&T at all, that they were doing what they were supposed to do. And that the FAA “only asked for 14 days” suggests they’re close to getting things done. There’s ultimately going to be no safety issue, the question is the extent to which airline operations or 5G deployment are limited in order to reach that outcome.

American’s Chief Operating Officer David Seymour added that there’s going to be a lot of testing to find out where there’s really an issue here.

We don’t have absolute certainty that they are not impacted, but we are working with the OEMs and the FAA to make sure that they feel comfortable that they won’t be impacted so we can continue operations. Now that 50 protected airports we only get for 6 months but over the 6 months we have the ability to do a lot more opportunity to do a lot more testing and validation. And that’s the one thing we haven’t been able to do in the system, and on the aviation side we like to do a lot of testing. We like to look at a lot of paper, but we also like to do some testing.

Ultimately Seymour expects flight attendants to have to make announcements on board about passenger 5G equipment on board, and there may be rules around 5G equipment in checked baggage.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. My read is somewhat different. Following it as best I can; the pilots unions and some of the airlines raised holy hell and the FAA temporarily caved saying we’re going to give you 14 days to prove your case.

  2. Fighting phantoms and taking the credit for “protecting the public,” is much easier than say, checking the airworthiness of Boeing airplanes when there is such a lucrative revolving door between FAA and the Agency management and staff such that Boeing has essentially captured its regulator, or assuring that Warren Buffet’s exceptionally politically powerful FlightSafety International actually provides meaningful certifications for small jet pilots rather than the boloney certifications they actually hand out. This is only confusing if one labors under an illusion that the FAA exists to protect the public rather than to protect aviation suppliers, itself, and FAA employees. Don’t get me started on NTSB.

  3. This is a non-issue that some are freaking out about. Reminds me of the Y2K nuts who claimed w/o changes planes would be falling out of the sky. That was a non-factor (except for things that had issues with dates) and this is another one as well.

    Somewhat similar to laptops/cell phones where people tried to claim they could cause major issues. Sure laptops like most electronics generate some interference but if it was that easy to crash a plane, it would have happened multiple times by malicious people.

  4. The big problem is that airplane’s radio altimeters have been built with poor frequency filtering, and respond to frequencies far beyond the planes licensed frequency. If you look at the FCC notice on any electronic equipment you buy, equipment is supposed to accept any interference received. While this is for a different part of FCC regulations than radio altimeters, is pretty clear that the designers of radio altimeters have been lazy. It takes a while to get equipment FAA approved, but what should have been happening is redesign of radio altimeters to reject unwanted interference, and planes without those redesigned altimeters should be the ones subject to the airworthiness directive. Instead, they played a game of chicken, hoping that the FAA would be able to fight against the billions of dollars the government received from the frequency auction.

  5. Given that the FAA specifically identified a risk to 787s and to certain landing functions and not other aircraft, I think they have a pretty good idea of the risk. Since AA operates 787s and Doug Parker is speaking the FAA should do what it deems best

  6. And the rest of the world has been using 5G no problem?
    And 777’s fly to the rest of the world?

  7. the frequencies used on 5G have been in use for decades. this is a simple frequency reassignment.

    that means different “people” will be using the frequencies that have already been in use.

    remember when the conspiracy theorists said that 5G was going boil our insides and end the world about 2 years ago? This is a continuation of that nonsense.

    I’m an associate professor of information systems at the largest private university on the planet. This material is in the 101 course i’ve taught for more than 2 decades.

  8. @Gary — Here’s a very plausible explanation for this controversy

    Europe Has 5G. Here Is Why It Hasn’t Messed Up the Airlines

    From the article — “In the U.S., 5G is allocated to a range of between 3.7GHz and 3.98GHZ, which is closer to the 4.2GHz-4.4GHz frequency for altimeters than in Europe, which has allocated the 3.4GHz-3.8GHz range for 5G. Holmes said that in Europe altimeter filters will be better at stopping 5G signals, which will result in less potential interference.”

    So the upper boundary of the frequency band for 5G in USA is at 3.98-GHz vs for EU at 3.8-GHz, or 0.18-GHz closer in USA to the lower boundary of the frequency band for altimeters, thus raising additional filtering performance concerns not relevant in the EU. Retrofitting existing altimeters to perform with better filters within this tighter filtering constraint will be prohibitively expensive, even if practical.

    This sounds kinda self-inflicted within USA — didn’t the FCC and FAA confer about this issue before approving its development and (now) deployment?

  9. StrictlyFacts supplies some excellent points. Gary, before you offer opinions based on Parker’s “sales pitch”, STRONGLY urge you to talk with some RF experts to learn about the whole 5G issue. Many of those experts have been expressing concerns about this for a while. But once again (or maybe as usual) the FAA paid little attention and the FCC (Trump-controlled at the time) had little interest in butting heads with Commercial interests. As for some of the other “opinions” expressed here, as in the fight against CoVid, the no-nothings again show their incredible ignorance. (No, Jeff, it has NOTHING to do with cellphones.) These are the same fools who claimed alarms over the 737-MAX were a non-issue. Ignore this?? OK but as the great Harry Callaghan asked: “Are you feeling lucky ??”

  10. @Rich

    No one said anything about crashing. The fact of the matter is having an RA freak out during an autoland in low vis would trigger a warning which would in turn cause the pilots to go around which would lead you to landing in a destination which was not your own where you will no doubt complain. To prevent that the FAA will be restricting certain approaches to certain airport leading to increased delays and possible cancellations until this get sorted out. All this because honestly you can’t be counted on to flip your phone into airplane mode which would prevent any transmissions from the immediate vicinity of the RA.

  11. All the conversation and hyperbole surrounding this concern seems to ignore one fact. The same airplanes fly to Europe and Asia that fly domestically. Airlines do not have specific “US “ airplanes, especially the 777 that has been noted as a high risk aircraft for 5G interference.
    Since these same planes have flown without incident since 2019 in the 5G environment, it becomes clear this issue is politically and financially motivated.
    Could this be more about airlines forcing the government and telecom to pay for filtering upgrades?
    The last few years of government subsidy to ensure continuous record airline profit has proven to airline CEOs that its an effective financial tool.

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