US airlines avoided flight disruptions in limited 5G rollout

The main trade group representing US airlines thanked the Biden administration for helping to “avert catastrophic disruption” for air travel Wednesday during a limited 5G service launch.

Airlines for America CEO Nicholas Calio said the agreement reached with AT&T and Verizon to temporarily limit their 5G service rollout near key airports prevented major impacts to the “traveling and shipping public, the global supply chain and the U.S. economy.”

“Today, because of the agreements the White House reached with AT&T and Verizon yesterday, thousands of flights are taking off and landing safety at airports across the country, transporting millions of passengers and countless shipments of critical goods including medical supplies, vaccines and COVID-19 test kits,” Calio said in a statement.

“While there is still work to be done by all stakeholders, this is an important step toward achieving a permanent solution and allowing the U.S. to continue leading the world in aviation safety while also expanding our nation’s 5G network,” he added.

Fewer than 300 US flights were canceled as of Wednesday afternoon, according to tracking data from FlightAware. The minimal interruptions were a positive sign, just days after airline CEOs warned federal officials the 5G launch could result in more than 1,000 cancelations per day.

Airlines had requested 5G activation to be halted near airports so flights would not have to face disruptions.
EPA / Justin Lane

The concerns stemmed from a federal warning that powerful 5G signals could interfere with critical instruments that measure altitude on some planes. The Boeing 777, a widely used passenger plane, was among the models yet to be cleared for safe use prior to the rollout.

Several international carriers, including Emirates, canceled or changed US flight plans due to the safety issue.

AT&T and Verizon each said they had voluntarily agreed to temporarily limit their 5G launches near airports, though the rest of their rollouts would proceed as scheduled. Their decision followed protests from major US airline CEOs who asked federal officials to intervene.

A United Airlines plane flies by a cellular tower as it takes off from San Francisco International Airport on January 18.
Fewer than 300 flights were canceled in the US as of Wednesday afternoon.
Getty Images /Justin Sullivan

In updated guidance released Wednesday afternoon, the Federal Aviation Administration said it has now approved 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 FAA said that some Boeing 777 are now cleared.

“Even with these approvals, flights at some airports may still be affected,” the agency said. “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.”

UPS, one of the companies that expressed concern about the rollout, said it was “monitoring the situation closely, but not seeing any impacts in serving our customers today.”

Southwest Airlines also said it was not experiencing major issues during the limited rollout Wednesday.

A Delta airlines airplane on approach to land at LaGuardia Airport passes telecommunications antennae on a rooftop in Queens.
There was a fear that the 5G service could hamper the use of important instruments on planes.
EPA / Justin Lane

“We expect minimal disruptions from 5G implementation and, currently, are limited to very few cancelations on the West Coast,” an airline spokesperson said. “We continue to monitor weather and runway conditions at the 5G impacted airports, utilizing the plans we built to manage the operation in this environment. Will let you know if anything changes.”

United Airlines said it expects “minor disruptions” due to 5G restrictions.

“While we anticipate minor disruptions at some airports due to the remaining 5G restrictions, we’re pleased the Biden Administration reached a compromise with AT&T and Verizon to avoid mass cancellations across the aviation industry,” the airline said.