US 5G postponement prevented ‘severe disruption’ of flights

United Airlines chief Scott Kirby hailed the intervention of the White House in preventing “severe disruption” to US air travel this week.

Referring to the last-minute agreement to delay the roll-out of 5G mobile networks around major US airports from Wednesday, Kirby said: “I want to thank the White House, [transportation] secretary [Pete] Buttigieg and the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon for agreeing an approach that mostly avoided what would have been severe disruption to passengers and cargo.”

Speaking as United reported a near $2 billion net loss in full-year results for 2021, Kirby said: “This wasn’t an issue created by the airlines.  Every carrier followed the rules dictated by the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration].

“Since we first heard from the FAA about this issue in November, United has been 100% engaged to underscore the severe risk the 5G roll-out posed to aviation.

“While we don’t have a final resolution, I’m confident we’ll get there. This problem has been resolved allowing a full roll-out of 5G without significant impacts on aviation in 40 countries around the world.”

However, the last-minute delay did not prevent carriers outside the US cancelling flights on Tuesday and Wednesday due to concerns at the plan to deploy 5G from January 19.

Emirates president Tim Clark described the last-minute reaction to safety concerns as “delinquent, utterly irresponsible”.

AT&T said it had voluntarily agreed to “temporarily defer turning on” a number of 5G-enabled towers around “certain airport runways”.

Verizon likewise said it had voluntarily decided to limit its 5G network “around airports”. The telecoms operators had already delayed the roll-out twice from December 5 to January 5 and then to January 19.

Airline association Iata noted that it, the FAA and “numerous other aviation stakeholders” had raised concerns that 5G operations in the C-band radio frequency could interfere with radio altimeters – “a critical aircraft safety system”

Iata warned: “Harmful interference to the functions of the radio altimeter during any phase of flight could pose a serious safety risk to passengers, crew and people on the ground”.

In December the FAA issued directives restricting and, in some cases, prohibiting flight operations that require use of radio altimeters at most US airports.

Then on January 13, the FAA issued a warning that “anomalies due to 5G C-Band interference may affect multiple other airline systems using radio altimeter data”.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has authorised 5G operations in the C-band spectrum despite these warnings.

United reported a net loss of $1.96 billion for 2021, including an operating loss of $1 billion, despite receiving $5.8 billion through the US Federal Payroll Support Programme.

However, this was an improvement on 2020 when United reported a $7 billion net loss after recording a $3 billion profit in 2019.

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