What was going on with 5G and all those flight cancellations?

Travel has been moving for obvious reasons, but last month brought a new barrier to aerial escapes: 5G. When a new version of the wireless service hit the market in mid-January, many flights at Paine Field and other airports failed to take off. In the wake of these cancellations, fliers are left wondering what happened — and how their future travel plans might be affected.

How did the 5G launch affect Sea-Tac, Paine Field, and other airports?

Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warned in early January that the planned rollout of 5G wireless service by AT&T and Verizon near airports could lead to stranded travelers and waves of canceled flights. The problem was especially dire for international travelers as several international airlines decided to cancel or suspend flights in the US until the safety concerns could be calculated and rectified. Leisure and business jet-setters were not the only ones affected – cargo flights, military operations, medical evacuations and organ transplant helicopters were also on high alert for this new form of air traffic.

On January 24, all flights to and from Everett’s Paine Field, operated by Alaska Air’s E175 regional jets, comprising the entire passenger fleet at the airport, were grounded and cancelled. Additional departures and arrivals were canceled all week until the heavy fog lifted. At Sea-Tac, some international airlines have suspended flights in Seattle due to 5G issues, but most flights to and from the global hub went as planned thanks to heightened security measures.

What security risk did 5G pose to flights?

AT&T and Verizon’s 5G networks operate in the C-band spectrum frequency, which is close to the frequencies used by critical airline safety equipment. FAA officials fear these C-band frequencies could interfere with aircraft altitude measurement equipment — data that helps pilots navigate, detect changes in terrain and avoid collisions. Simply put, planes and helicopters may not be able to calculate their altitude for safe take-offs and landings in poor visibility as the new 5G networks cross their path. Definitely not a bust that you’d want your pilot to crackle about halfway through the descent.

At Paine Field, the combination of inclement weather and nearby 5G C-band transmission resulted in grounded aircraft. Dense fog created dangerous flying conditions for pilots who could not rely on their altimeters to work accurately due to nearby 5G transmitters. Airports within two miles of a transmitter with common low visibility conditions are most at risk for planes grounding.

Despite meeting these criteria, Paine Field was not protected like other airports with similar characteristics. The FAA has put together a list of 50 high-risk airports that excludes the airport north of Seattle (Sea-Tac made the cut). AT&T and Verizon agreed to create a six-month buffer zone around the affected airports by turning off nearby transmitters or adjusting signal strength to minimize interference. As a result, Sea-Tac has avoided most signal-related cancellations for the time being.

Why is this 5G frequency a new problem?

We have been living with 5G for a while, but not with the new C-band frequency. For example, T-Mobile’s 5G network uses a different frequency that doesn’t overlap or interfere with aircraft usage, so all flights were good when their service was rolled out.

While regulatory organizations have known for years about the potential risks of AT&T and Verizon’s C-band spectrum frequencies, the ineffective collaboration between the aerospace and telecommunications industry and multiple government agencies has led to the current situation. The Airline Pilots Association took their concerns to the FCC in 2018, but nothing came of it. According to the FAA timeline, it was just days before the planned rollout that organizations began taking steps to address the looming security concerns.

Wireless companies have worked with the FAA to disclose precise transmitter locations and strengths, aiding ongoing security assessments. AT&T and Verizon also agreed to delay the rollout of 5G in 46 US markets, scheduled for January 5 to January 19.

Without this delay, none of the 88 airports most directly affected by 5G C-band interference, including both Paine Field and Sea-Tac, would have been operational by January 5.

Has the problem been resolved?

Almost. For now at least.

As of the latest update on Jan. 28, the FAA has cleared “an estimated 90 percent of the U.S. commercial aircraft fleet, including the Boeing 737 MAX, for most low-visibility approaches,” even in areas with new 5G transmission.

The FAA has analyzed each aircraft type and airport one by one to ensure passengers, crew and cargo remain safe.

With the 5G buffer zone around Sea-Tac, travelers can confidently pack their bags without worrying about 5G-related cancellations. Last Monday, Paine Field was also cleared for low-visibility approaches, allowing air traffic to return to normal.

But after the six-month buffer zone deals expire this summer, the future of airports near 5G C-band transmitters is in question. Airlines for America, a trade organization that represents many U.S. carriers, released a statement on Feb. 3 predicting that “it will likely take years, not days or weeks, to resolve the interference problems caused by the deployment of 5G in the C- tire completely and permanently.”

Asked what to expect after the six-month buffer period, the FAA said it will “continue to work in good faith with the wireless companies to find a long-term solution that minimizes disruption to both sectors. We have not set a timeline for ending this engagement.” Obviously some things are still up in the air.

For a complete and updated timeline of the FAA’s findings and regulations, visit the website.

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