Distressing news for air travelers: The Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday outlined flight restrictions that will take effect in January when a new 5G wireless service makes its debut. This is even as regulators work with telecom and aerospace companies to avoid air traffic disruptions.
The FAA order pertains to a type of 5G slated to go live Jan. 5. It would restrict pilots from operating automatic landing and other cockpit systems commonly used in poor weather, to avoid possible interference from 5G in the spectrum range known as the C-band. At issue here is a band of radio frequencies between 3.7 and 4.2 GHz, which spectrum is considered highly suitable for 5G networks (and already serves cellphone networks in other countries.)
Less well known is that aviation equipment operates at adjacent frequencies, i.e. between 4.2 and 4.4 GHz, raising the specter of interference. This is serious given there are a number of documented case - such as seen on the Smithsonian 'Air Disasters' TV series- showing how communications' interference doomed a number of flights. Thus, it is a no-brainer for the FAA to get involved from a safety point of view.
This is all despite an earlier FCC review about the safety risks which declared (in a March, 2020 order) that: "Well -designed equipment should not ordinarily receive any significant interference let alone harmful interference." It also indicated that wireless companies could start operating in the C-band from December 5th of this year. That is in addition to other frequencies already in use for 5G.
Flash forward a year and 9 months, the FAA and aviation industry groups have now declared that the Jan. 5 rollout of new 5G services. could interfere with radar or radio altimeters, gauges that measure the distance between aircraft and the ground. Information from those devices feeds a number of cockpit safety systems used to land planes, avoid crashes and prevent midair collisions. Exactly the type of catastrophes featured in a number of the 'Air Disasters' episodes (Google to see all the relevant listed episodes.)
Is this over-reaction? No, I don't believe so, and it is a welcome sign of proactive initiative, especially given how the FAA failed dismally in controlling the explosive use of commercial drones - or imposing regulations on them. See e.g.
Will there be a downer aspect to this FAA order restricting pilots from operating automatic landing and other cockpit systems in bad weather? Of course! The potential flight limits could significantly disrupt air travel, leading to cancellations and diversions in any foul weather (common in January) and reduced airline schedules.
On a positive note, fliers shouldn't be suddenly shocked at any given travel disruption or change. We have been assured by the FAA that the airports that would face potential disruptions will be identified in future notices. This is according to the FAA order, with the notices known as an airworthiness directive. According to the order:
"The FAA plans to use data provided by telecommunications providers to determine which airports within the United States have or will have C-band base stations or other devices that could potentially impact airplane systems,”
Well, let us hope so! In its order, the FAA said it determined that “no information has been presented that shows radio altimeters are not susceptible to interference” by new 5G service. The FAA’s order said it affected an estimated 6,834 U.S.-registered airliners and other aircraft. Let us also point out that regulators in some countries have already imposed restrictions. France has put in place some limits on 5G operations at certain airports, for example, while Japan restricts certain cell sites near aircraft approach routes.
Meanwhile, U.S. regulators and technical experts have been working to address concerns about potential safety risks to resolve a long-running dispute between the aviation and telecom industries. Airline trade groups are also monitoring ongoing government discussions, and in the words of one spokesperson for 'Airlines for America' quoted in the WSJ: "We look forward to a resolution."
Well, let's hope whatever resolution is more effective than that we beheld for the drones!