Why Airlines Are Trying to Stop Cell Phone Carriers from Rolling Out 5G Service

Airline CEOs have warned that it could cause "catastrophic disruption" for travel.


Despite a multi-month setback, Verizon and AT&T are finally moving forward with their next-generation 5G technology—a rollout that airline CEOs are desperately trying to delay further. Chief executives are demanding "immediate intervention" citing concerns that the updated service will create a "catastrophic disruption" to travel. "Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded," American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and other CEOs said in a letter to several government agencies, per Reuters.

What is the upgraded 5G service?

Verizon and AT&T are gearing up for the release of their updated C-Band 5G service: The two telecommunications companies spent tens of billions of dollars in order to upgrade their networks to roll out the improved technology, which will bring faster internet to hundreds of millions of people around the country, per Fox Business.

Though you may be familiar with 5G (Verizon initially launched the service in 2018), the Ultra-Wideband technology—aka the fastest millimeter-wave connection—has been limited to very specific areas, while its low-band 5G network (known as 5G nationwide) performs similarly to that of a 4G LTE connection, CNet reports. C-Band 5G will offer wider coverage and better speed than what customers have experienced over the past few years.

Why was the 5G rollout delayed?

According to Insider, AT&T and Verizon were expected to release the update in November 2021, but following major pushback from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that date was moved—first to January 5, and now, January 19.

Why are airlines concerned about 5G?

Airline and aircraft manufacturers alike have warned that the C-Band 5G will likely interfere with aviation equipment known as radar or radio altimeters, which help measure the distance between the plane and the ground. This is integral in helping planes navigate difficult weather conditions and avoid crashes.

"We are writing with urgency to request that 5G be implemented everywhere in the country except within the approximate two miles of airport runways as defined by the FAA on January 19, 2022," the letter said, adding, "to be blunt, the nation's commerce will grind to a halt."

The letter warns that the 5G implementation could cause "chaos" domestically as well as "potentially strand tens of thousands of Americans overseas." More than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers are facing cancelations, diversions, and delays, according to the letter.

"The federal government's current 5G rollout plan will have a devastating impact on aviation, negatively affecting an estimated 1.25 million United passengers, at least 15,000 flights, and much-needed goods and tons of cargo traveling through more than 40 of the largest airports in the country annually," United Airlines said in a statement, according to CBS.

What is the FAA's response to the January 19 5G rollout?

"The FAA will continue to ensure that the traveling public is safe as wireless companies deploy 5G," the administration said in a statement. "The FAA continues to work with the aviation industry and wireless companies to try to limit 5G-related flight delays and cancelations.”

The FAA has also cleared 45% of US commercial aircraft for low-visibility landings at most airports where 5G C-Band is expected to roll out January 19.

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Megan Schaltegger is a staff writer at Thrillist.