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5G rollout delayed near Detroit Metro, other major airports over flight disruption concerns

'It can have a major impact worldwide on aviation.'
Delta flight generic
Posted at 4:43 PM, Jan 18, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-18 18:20:30-05

It's a 5G showdown—wireless carriers and the federal government reached a last minute deal to avoid the 5G rollout at major airports including Detroit Metro.

Major airlines and pilots have been sounding the alarm. They’re concerned that deploying the new technology could seriously disrupt flight operations. Verizon and AT&T announced late today they are delaying the rollout near certain airports yet again, while 90% of their wireless tower deployment of 5G will move forward as scheduled.

President Biden thanked the carriers for the new agreement, saying “it will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery.”

U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also released the following statement regarding the 5G rollout: "We recognize the economic importance of expanding 5G, and we appreciate the wireless companies working with us to protect the flying public and the country’s supply chain. The complex U.S. airspace leads the world in safety because of our high standards for aviation, and we will maintain this commitment as wireless companies deploy 5G."

5G can disrupt a key instrument that pilots rely on to conduct safe landings, and that’s especially important in a place like Michigan, where weather can be a major concern.

Would you trade safety while flying for faster wireless service? As AT&T and Verizon prepare to deploy their 5G technology, the aviation world is saying no.

"This is unsafe. The manufacturers have said so, our airlines are saying so, the FAA is saying so and so are pilot unions," Dennis Tajer of the Allied Pilots Association told ABC News.

The Federal Aviation Administration says the 5G signals can interfere with a flight instrument called a radio altimeter. That instrument tells pilots precisely how far they are from the ground and it’s especially important during landings.

"We don’t want interference when an airplane is doing 150 knots 80 feet from concrete ... it can have a major impact worldwide on aviation," said Josh Burns, a former airline pilot.

Burns is a flight simulator instructor and a former commercial airline pilot. Burns has flown into Detroit Metro Airport countless times, which is on the list of 50 airports the FAA expects will have buffer zones when 5G gets activated by the wireless companies. But major airline executives say the buffer zone may not be enough to keep everyone safe.

Burns says the radio altimeter is especially important for pilots when there’s a low cloud ceiling and low visibility, a common weather scenario at Metro Airport.

"You’re depending on that radio altimeter to get you to that point when you break out to a visual landing point, which is literally seconds you have to react at that point to make your landing, so it’s a very important instrument in those situations," Burns told 7 Investigator Heather Catallo.

Burns says with signal interruptions, pilots may have to start doing “missed” approaches. And if they can’t safely land at Metro, you could end up miles away from your destination.

"It can be a major inconvenience to passengers, and to the pilots and everyone involved if you think you’re going to Chicago or Detroit and next thing you know, you’re holding over a VOR and you end up in Cleveland," said Burns.

On Monday, the CEOs from major airlines like Delta and American told the FAA and the President that “immediate intervention is needed” to avoid grounding flights due to the 5G rollout. The executives' warning: “the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

Today they got that intervention with the wireless carriers agreeing to another delay near certain airports like Metro.

AT&T released a statement saying they were frustrated but also said, “At our sole discretion we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment. We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner. We are launching our advanced 5G services everywhere else as planned with the temporary exception of this limited number of towers.”

Verizon also issued the following statement: “Verizon is proud to lead the nation in 5G. Tomorrow, Verizon will launch its 5G Ultra Wideband network which will enable more than 90 million Americans to experience the transformative speed, reliability and power of this game-changing network on the go or in their homes or businesses. Americans have been clamoring for 5G and tomorrow we will deliver it. As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries. Thanks to the best team in the industry for delivering this technology which promises a revolutionary next step in wireless communications including tremendous benefits for our nation."