What on Earth Does 5G Have to Do With Airplanes?

This time, the risks aren't just a conspiracy theory

hand holding a smartphone against a purple-ish sky with an airplane flying above
Qi Yang / Getty Images

It's not just for tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracists. Over the course of last week, All Nippon Airways, Air India, British Airways, Emirates, Japan Airlines, and Lufthansa announced that they plan on canceling and suspending a variety of flights to the U.S. due to concerns about the impact of the 5G C-band rollout that was scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022.

Hearing reports about the dangers of 5G is nothing new. Skeptics have long believed that the next-generation network would have potentially deadly consequences. But the impact on the aviation industry is less about radiation and more about radio frequencies. The frequencies used by the 5G C-band are adjacent to those used by some radar altimeters, a piece of essential safety equipment used throughout a flight and during landing procedures. This means that when a plane flies near a 5G tower, like when coming in for a landing, it could interfere with its radar altimeter, creating the potential for a disaster.

There's not a readily available list of which planes are at risk of interference; however, when explaining its cancellations, ANA referred to an announcement from Boeing that the new rollout could interfere with instruments on its 777 aircraft, according to reporting by The Verge. To prevent failures when landing, some carriers are changing schedules and swapping planes so that Boeing 777s and other impacted planes are not flying to the U.S.

While the canceled flights surely came as a shock to travelers, the result isn't surprising considering the numerous deployment delays and long history of concerns expressed by the FAA. According to a statement from the department, the first warnings about the negative impact of 5G networks on aircraft were made in 2015. But there hasn't been any significant action taken by the FAA, Federal Communications Commissions, or airplane manufacturers to either update radar altimeter standards or craft a plan to ensure towers don't interfere with planes.

Considering that 5G has caused few to no problems in other countries, the question arises, why is this happening in the U.S.? According to a Jan. 2, 2022 statement from the FAA, flights aren't impacted in other countries because there was a collaboration with airports well before rollout, and "power levels have been reduced around airports." The Jan. 2, 2022 statement also explains: European 5G service operates in a lower bandwidth than the 5G C-band (3.4-3.7 GHz versus 3.7-3.98 GHz). According to comments from Tim Clark, president of Emirates, the unique danger with the U.S. rollout has to do with the positioning of the towers (vertical instead of slanting) and a signal strength allegedly twice as powerful as antennae in other countries.

The impact that full deployment could have on the aviation industry and commerce is potentially devastating. In a Jan. 17, 2022, letter to the Biden administration obtained by Politico, airline executives warn that more than 1,100 flights could be disrupted each day due to potential interference when landing in low-visibility conditions.

The letter also mentions that, according to plane manufacturers, "huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded" if the rollout is not delayed and the problems addressed. Facing that kind of pressure, AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay activation on some towers near airports for an unspecified amount of time.

It's currently a mystery when the issues regarding aircraft interference will be resolved, but as it stands, rollouts by airports are paused, and there's no word on when suspended flight routes will resume as normal. How long would it take for airplanes to have upgraded altimeters that will be unaffected by 5G C-band towers? Aviation spokespeople say years.

Article Sources
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  1. Federal Aviation Administration. "FAA Statements on 5G." Jan. 19, 2022.

  2. CNN. "5G vs airline safety: This is why we have a government." Jan. 19, 2022.

  3. CNN. "International airlines suspend some US flights over 5G uncertainty." Jan. 19, 2022.

  4. Bloomberg. "U.S. FAA Issues Safety Alert on 5G Interference to Aircraft." Nov. 2, 2021.