The U.S. aviation industry has been in a tizzy this week over fears that Wednesday’s launch of national 5G cellular service would create chaos by interfering with aircraft sensors. Ten major airlines wrote to the Biden administration predicting that the “nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.” Sure enough, come Wednesday, a number of airline flights were canceled, including all of Emirates’ U.S. flights. Emirates president Tim Clark called the 5G rollout “delinquent, utterly irresponsible.”
But by Thursday, the story had already fizzled. As commerce trundled along unfazed, several airlines un-canceled their flights and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that at least 78 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet would be unaffected in any way by the 5G rollout. Some observers went so far as to label the issue “incredibly dumb.” The main remaining question was why it had even turned into a thing in the first place.
The dispute had been brewing for years. Cell-phone networks have long been eager to get their hands on a high-frequency slice of the radio spectrum called the C band, which would allow them to transmit more information faster. Last year, the FCC, which regulates use of the spectrum, auctioned off the rights to a section that lies between 3.7 and 4 gigahertz. AT&T and Verizon paid nearly $70 billion for the privilege and made plans to begin 5G service over that frequency band in December.
The aviation industry was not happy about this. Officials at the FAA worried about interference with radar altimeters, which use pulses of radio-frequency radiation to measure how far above the ground a plane is. These devices operate in a frequency range of 4.2 to 4.4 gigahertz — not overlapping with the 5G band, but close enough that the new technology could cause interference capable of throwing off an altimeter’s readings. While planes have multiple ways to determine their altitude, radar altimeters are crucial in one particular scenario: when a plane is landing on autopilot in low-visibility conditions, specifically when the cloud ceiling is less than 200 feet above the ground.
There’s reason to believe that under such circumstances, a compromised altimeter could pose a real hazard. In 2009, Turkish Airlines Flight 1951, a Boeing 737, crashed while coming in to land at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, killing nine of the 135 people on board. Investigators later determined that a radar altimeter had been feeding faulty data to the plane’s autopilot. More recently, the aviation website The Air Current reported this week that radar altimeters have been giving glitchy readings on airplanes landing at Palm Beach International Airport in Florida.
But while such incidents sound scary, there are all sorts of reasons why instruments can give erroneous readings, and so far no problems have been definitively traced to 5G. Meanwhile more than 40 countries around the world have rolled out 5G networks, and none have reported any problems. Given that the risk so far remains essentially hypothetical, the question becomes: How far is it really necessary to go to protect the safety of America’s airways?
As the controversy simmered, the 5G rollout was delayed until January 5, then pushed back again until January 19. The FAA reviewed the planes and altimeters used in the U.S. fleet and determined that many common aircraft, including most Boeing and Airbus models, would be able to operate safely after the new 5G service was switched on. But it was not so sure about the Boeing 777 and 787, planes that make up a significant portion of the international long-haul fleet.
The airlines and Boeing maintained their resistance. In the spirit of compromise, AT&T and Verizon agreed on Tuesday to not switch on cell towers within a certain distance of airports, and to operate at reduced power. In a sign of how overheated the controversy had become, President Biden stepped into the fray on Tuesday, issuing a statement thanking the phone companies for their flexibility and promising that the 5G networks would be deployed without any risk to aviation safety.
The phone companies’ conciliatory moves were not enough for everyone, however. While American carriers shelved plans to cancel flights, foreign airlines ANA, British Airways, Emirates, and Japan Airlines suspended certain flights.
Bearing in mind that the interference problem would only be an issue with certain planes, under a narrow range of meteorological conditions that did not happen to apply on Wednesday, the flights’ cancellation could not be justified purely on safety grounds. Even if low ceilings had occurred, there would be no risk, only inconvenience: Inbound flights would either have had to hold until the weather improved or divert to another airport.
Airline executives’ alarmist rhetoric had even less basis. On Thursday, the FAA announced that all Boeing 787 and 777 — the model that Emirates was using for its canceled flights — were actually safe to fly. In response Emirates announced it would resume the flights.
As underwhelming as the 5G aviation-disaster story turned out to be, it is worth recognizing the context in which it took place. Airlines spent years telling passengers that using their cell phones in-flight was dangerous for the operation of the aircraft, a danger that was never borne out in practice and which the airlines eventually stopped talking about. Meanwhile conspiracy theorists have taken to promoting paranoid visions of 5G cell service causing cancer, autism, COVID-19, and worse. So when the U.S. government itself starts warning about the dangers of phone technology for aviation, it resonates in all kinds of ways that aren’t necessarily helpful for rational debate.
What happens next? Probably nothing interesting. Whatever legitimate concerns over interference remain in the weeks to come will presumably be worked out through a technical process of testing and adjustment, as it has in more than 30 countries where 5G service has already been successfully rolled out. As FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in an official statement Wednesday, “We know that deployment can safely coexist with aviation technologies in the United States, just as it does in other countries around the world. The FAA has a process in place to assess altimeter performance in the 5G environment and resolve any remaining concerns.”
In other words, no chaos will ensue. It will all be fine. Americans can stream Marvel movies without planes falling out of the sky.