Pete Buttigieg Warns of Flight Delays as 5G Deadline Looms

Date: Wednesday, June 28, 2023
Source: Wall Street Journal

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg is warning of the potential for air-travel disruption ahead of a deadline for airlines to retrofit equipment to avoid potential interference from 5G wireless signals.

Aircraft that haven’t gone through the necessary equipment changes won’t be cleared to land in certain weather conditions when visibility is low starting July 1, when U.S. wireless companies plan to boost their 5G service to higher power levels.

“There’s a real risk of delays or cancellations,” Buttigieg said in an interview. “This represents one of the biggest—probably the biggest—foreseeable problem affecting performance this summer.”

So far summer travel has been relatively smooth.

The severity of the potential impact is difficult to predict, as it depends on weather, but it could rise to a noticeable level, Buttigieg said. He said he was urging airlines to speed up installations before low visibility conditions become more prevalent after summer, or adjust their schedules.

Some airlines said they don’t expect problems: Most or all of their planes now have the updated equipment, or they expect to be able to plan around any restrictions for those that don’t.

The rollout of fifth-generation wireless service sparked conflict between the U.S. aviation and telecom industries as well as the government agencies that oversee them.

Aviation safety officials cautioned that some 5G signals could confuse devices that use radio waves to measure planes’ distance from the ground, providing readings commonly used to land in poor weather conditions. The wireless companies disputed that claim.

The issue came to a head early last year. Some incoming international flights were canceled as airlines scrambled to prepare for restrictions the Federal Aviation Administration planned if wireless providers began beaming the new signals to customers. In a last-minute compromise, AT&T and Verizon agreed to delay the launch of some 5G service near key airports while carriers worked to retrofit sensitive radar altimeters, and later agreed to extend that.

Wireless companies worldwide have used 5G upgrades to improve their services in recent years. The standoff over the technology’s air-safety implications has mostly centered around the U.S., where wireless companies use different radio frequencies than their overseas peers.

With the July 1 deadline now approaching after about 18 months, more than 80% of the domestic fleet and about 65% of international aircraft that fly to the U.S. have radar altimeters that won’t be susceptible to interference from 5G signals, Buttigieg said.

Some airlines and industry groups have said supply-chain snarls and certification hang-ups have made the July 1 deadline impossible to meet.

“Global supply chains continue to lag behind current demand. Carriers have repeatedly communicated this reality to the government,” Airlines for America said in a statement. The group said U.S. airlines are confident they can maintain their schedules.

A spokesman for the International Air Transport Association, which represents global airlines, said carriers would do their best to avoid disruptions related to the equipment. International airlines are trying to ensure that only fully-equipped aircraft will operate to the U.S., he said. Air India said all of the planes now working routes between the U.S. and India have the required altimeters.

Aviation and engineering experts have said that needed retrofits are fairly simple to install, though the work can be time-consuming and quickly overhauling an active fleet can be complicated. IATA has estimated that the bill, which airlines have to foot, will come to nearly $638 million.

Delta Air Lines said a supplier informed the airline that it wouldn’t have enough radio altimeters for the airline’s entire fleet by July 1 due to supply-chain roadblocks. The carrier, which has more than 900 airplanes in its mainline fleet, will have about 190 narrow-body jets not yet equipped with updated altimeters by July 1, including all of its Airbus A220 jets and some other Airbus models.

The carrier said it was working to strategically route these planes away from airports that could be affected by weather and expects minimal operational impact as it continues to make progress equipping more planes.

A JetBlue spokesman said the airline expected its 17 A220 jets to be upgraded by October. Until then, there may be “limited impact” on low-visibility days in Boston starting July 1.

United Airlines said all of its mainline planes are ready. Southwest Airlines said its current altimeters were allowed to operate without restriction and the airline didn’t expect any significant impact. American said its retrofits were on track to be completed by the deadline.

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