FAA warns 5G-related landing restrictions could divert flights due to snowfall at airports

An American Airlines commercial jet flies past a cell tower as it approaches to land at John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana, California, on January 18, 2022.

Mike Blake | Reuters

After a fairly smooth first day, the impact of new 5G cellular service on air travel is being tested by snow and other winter weather.

The Federal Aviation Administration has warned that it will restrict landings in certain low visibility conditions due to concerns that 5G signals could interfere with critical aircraft equipment. When winter storms hit Thursday, the FAA said it might have to divert some flights.

At the center of the issue are aircraft radio altimeters, which tell pilots how far an aircraft is from the ground. The altimeters use frequencies that are close to those used for the new 5G service, raising concerns that aircraft are receiving inaccurate data.

The new service began on Wednesday after two delays since December. Verizon and AT&T agreed at the last minute to temporarily delay deployments near airports after airlines warned federal officials that the signals could cause widespread disruption and “economic disaster.”

“Due to the nationwide 5G C band expansion and possible radio altimeter interference, [air traffic control] has identified airports and/or geographies that may be affected by meteorological conditions leading to a flight diversion,” the FAA said in a statement.

Airports in Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and San Francisco were the hardest hit, he said, noting that this could lead to back-up traffic at airports in Detroit, Reno, California, Chicago and Los Angeles.

“We just don’t compromise on safety, and when the FAA tells us it’s not safe to land, first, we don’t have any discretion in it, but second, even if we did, we wouldn’t do it. “- CEO of United Airlines. Scott Kirby told CNBC’s Squawk Box on Thursday.

By Wednesday evening, the FAA had cleared 62% of the US fleet to land in poor visibility, compared to 45% over the weekend. The agency plans to approve more as early as Thursday. Approved altimeters are installed on Boeing 717, 737, 747, 757, 767 and 777, as well as Airbus A310, A320, A321, A350 and A380.

Small regional aircraft are still waiting for approval.

“We were lucky to enjoy favorable weather at most destinations on the first day of 5G rollout, but have received no updates from the FAA on mitigation for our fleets,” regional carrier SkyWest Airlines said in a statement Wednesday. The carrier flies for American, United and Delta. “If the weather worsens at any affected location, there remains the potential for significant operational impacts until all mitigation measures are in place for all commercial aircraft. As always, we will not jeopardize security.”

There were few cancellations on the first day of service as the airlines also had relatively clear weather. Some international airlines, including Japan Airlines and Emirates Airline, canceled some flights to the US, but reversed the decision after the FAA cleared the 777 wide-body aircraft to land in poor visibility. These aircraft are typically used for long haul international routes.

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