International airlines canceled dozens of flights to US airports on Wednesday amid the rollout of new 5G wireless internet technology.
According to the airline industry and the FAA, the 5G cell phone service has the potential to impede critical aircraft equipment if the towers are positioned too close to an airport and would pose a risk to flights operating safely.
Some of the world’s most notable airlines, including Emirates, Japan Airlines, Air India, All Nippon Airways, and others have nixed flights to US airports where the technology would be operating nearby as of January 19. Emirates, for one, canceled flights to Chicago , Dallas, Miami, Newark, Orlando, and Seattle that were scheduled for Wednesday; Air India scrubbed flights to New York-JFK, Chicago, San Francisco, and Newark.
For months, airlines and cell phone carriers Verizon and AT&T have been locked in a dispute over the effects of 5G technology on aircraft equipment. While the aviation industry—including airports, airlines, the FAA, and aircraft manufacturers—maintain that rollout of the technology should be delayed, the cell phone companies say they’ve had ample time to update any systems that would potentially be affected.
The aircraft equipment in question is a device called an altimeter, which uses radio waves to give pilots readings on how far a plane is above the ground. According to regulators, the radio waves from 5G towers have the potential to interfere with an altimeter’s measurements. If the 5G towers were to be activated within range of airports, the facilities “will lose their low visibility approach capability, the type of approach a pilot would use in the event of rain or fog,” Chris Oswald, a safety official for Airports Council International, in a statement on Tuesday. Without reliable altimeter readings, pilots would be unable to land in certain weather conditions.
As a result, aircraft manufacturers like Boeing released safety bulletins to airlines that some of their jets, like the 777, may not be safe to operate near active 5G towers. On Tuesday, after a letter from US airline CEOs urging the Biden administration not to deploy the technology at towers within two miles of airport runways, the cell phone carriers agreed to delay activating 5G around those certain airports.
“This agreement will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90 percent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled,” the White House said in a statement.
As of Wednesday, it wasn’t clear how long the flight cancellations would continue. According to Oswald, the ability for the plane’s equipment to operate among 5G waves “will be restored gradually as aircraft manufacturers and radio altimeter manufacturers demonstrate they can operate safely in a 5G environment.” Some air carriers, like Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways, said that they received clearance from Boeing that their affected aircraft would be safe to fly and normal operations would resume on Thursday.