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Travellers stranded as airlines ditch U.S. destinations over 5G rollout

By Wole Oyebade
21 January 2022   |   4:20 am
Nigerian international travellers, among others, were yesterday stranded as some foreign airlines withdrew flight services into the United States, citing safety concerns over 5G rollout.

Nigerian international travellers, among others, were yesterday stranded as some foreign airlines withdrew flight services into the United States, citing safety concerns over 5G rollout.

The passengers, who had earlier booked connecting flights into the United States, were caught in transit by abrupt modification on U.S. scheduled flights by the likes of Emirates, Lufthansa, British Airways and Air India.

Transportation regulators had already been concerned that the version of 5G that was scheduled to be switched on could interfere with some airplane instruments, and many aviation industry groups shared those fears – despite reassurances from federal telecom regulators and wireless carriers.

Specifically, the Federal Aviation Administration has been worried that 5G cellular antennas near some airports – not air travellers’ mobile devices – could throw off readings from some aircraft equipment designed to tell pilots how far they are from the ground.

Those systems, known as radar altimeters, are used throughout a flight and are considered critical equipment.

An Emirates Boeing 777 flying to the U.S. on Thursday ended up landing thousands of miles away in Russia after encountering control problems. The twinjet eventually diverted to St Petersburg, having changed its requested destination several times along the way.

Emirates said it would suspend flights into nine U.S. airports – Boston, Chicago O’Hare, Dallas Fort Worth, George Bush Intercontinental in Houston, Miami, Newark, Orlando, San Francisco and Seattle.

“We are working closely with aircraft manufacturers and the relevant authorities to alleviate operational concerns, and we hope to resume our US services as soon as possible,” Emirates said in a statement.

As of Wednesday, British Airways had cancelled a handful of flights “because a decision by telecom operators to delay activating the new 5G service at some locations didn’t cover all the airports the airline serves.”

Germany’s Lufthansa also cancelled a flight between Frankfurt and Miami. It said it would swap Boeing 747-8 aircraft for 747-400s on flights from Frankfurt to Los Angeles, Chicago and San Francisco.

5G data roll-out, which has been postponed in the U.S. severally, represents the next step in terms of internet usage on mobile phone networks. It will likely take over from the existing 4G setup offered by most providers, with widespread use foreseen by the middle of the decade.

With higher bandwidth promised by 5G networks, users will have faster access to the internet and more consistent connections, even at busy events such as sporting fixtures. However, its rollout is now beginning to threaten to impact airline operations.

Leading commercial airplane manufacturers, Airbus and Boeing Corporations, had, in December, urged the United States to delay rollout of new 5G phone services over safety concerns.

In a letter, top executives at Boeing and Airbus warned that the technology could have “an enormous negative impact on the aviation industry.”

Amid mounting pressure and the potential of widespread flight cancellations, Verizon and AT&T have once again delayed their 5G rollouts in areas near airports. Nonetheless, flight schedules have still been hit hard, with most of Air India’s US-bound flights shelved yesterday.

ANA, Emirates, and JAL have made similar cuts over the potential interference with radio altimeters. To minimise disruption, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has designated 50 ‘buffer zone’ airports.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), yesterday, welcomed the decisions by ATT and Verizon to delay the rollout of C-band 5G near airports and lauded the Biden Administration for its continuous efforts to ensure that passenger and cargo operations are not disrupted.

IATA’s Director-General, Willie Walsh, stated that the delay was only a temporary solution.

“It is still necessary for all stakeholders and regulators, aviation and telecommunication alike, to continue sharing needed technical information and working together to reach a successful implementation plan that will ensure C-band 5G technologies can safely co-exist with the aviation industry. Any mitigation measures to ensure safe flying must be operationally viable,” Walsh said.

To that end, IATA urged the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to recognise the needs and recommendations of the aviation community in deploying C-band 5G.

It also urged the U.S. FAA to accelerate its engagement with the FCC and to continue working with the industry and aircraft makers to expedite the enhancement of safe Alternative Means of Compliance (AMOC) solutions to minimise any 5G-related disruptions.

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