What's the Big Deal About Airlines & 5G? An Explainer
5g and aviation

What’s the Big Deal About Airlines & 5G? An Explainer

For more than a week, airlines and wireless phone companies have been at each others’ throats over two simple characters: 5G.

Welcome to the debate over the latest expansion of faster wireless service that has consumed the airline industry for weeks – if not months. Talk to the likes of Verizon and AT&T, and their latest 5G technology is the future, promising faster network speeds to more Americans. But ask the airlines, and it could threaten the safety of the entire industry.

This latest 5G expansion was set to be launched earlier this week but was paused – for the second time in the last year – at the request of some of the nation’s largest airlines.

So what’s going on? What’s all the drama about – and what does it mean for travelers once this new technology finally gets off the ground?


Why is 5G a Problem?

For starters, it’s not just any 5G network that’s at issue here. We’ve had 5G cellular networks in the U.S. for many years.

The entire debate is all about 5G C-Band technology, which operates at a different frequency that allows drastically faster download speeds and more coverage nationwide. According to Forbes, many Americans will see 10x faster speeds on their cellular devices.

So what’s the issue? Airline altimeters – the instrument planes use to measure their distance above the ground – operate on the same frequency. The Department of Transportation and the FAA have said that radio signal interference created by these new 5G networks could pose a risk to flight safety and cause disruptions.

Cell tower 

The two sides have been debating the issue for years, trying to address those safety concerns while moving ahead. Cellular network companies pointed to successful deployments of the new 5G networks in France and other countries. After a month-long pause last year to iron out the final issues, both AT&T and Verizon were ready to launch this new 5G C-Band network this Wednesday, Jan. 5.

But then the airlines stepped in…


What Are Airlines Saying?

Late last week, the airline trade group Airlines for America filed an eleventh-hour request to delay the launch of the networks.

“Aircraft will not be able to rely on radio altimeters for numerous flight procedures and thus will not be able to land at certain airports,” the group wrote, according to The Associated Press.

That move capped off weeks of dire warnings from airline executives, pilots’ unions, and other industry groups about the consequences of moving ahead with the new 5G technology. In a mid-December U.S. Senate hearing, CEOs from the nation’s four largest airlines almost unanimously said the 5G issue was the most pressing problem facing the industry.

united plane 

“It would be a catastrophic failure of government,” United CEO Scott Kirby told Reuters after that hearing.

The Federal Aviation Administration has warned that these new 5G deployments near major airports could ban altimeter use for landings, meaning planes couldn’t land in some bad weather conditions. If true, that would only exacerbate weeks of mass flight cancellations and delays nationwide through the holidays.

Both AT&T and Verizon offered to reduce their 5G signals around busy airport runways. But with the launch date approaching, wireless companies brushed off the request for a delay and dismissed the airlines’ perspective as fearmongering.

Until this week.

What’s Happening Now?

Late Monday night, AT&T and Verizon finally agreed to hit the pause button on the latest 5G rollout.

“We’ve agreed to a two-week delay which promises the certainty of bringing this nation our game-changing 5G network in January delivered over America’s best and most reliable network,” Verizon said a statement.

That delay would push the rollout of 5G C-Band networks until at least Jan. 19. During that two-week pause, the FAA says it will be working to identify how big the buffer zones around critical airports need to be for planes to use their altimeters to land safely.

That’s no guarantee that the two sides will reach a compromise by Jan. 19 that will allow the telecommunications to launch their new technology without the potential for interference. But it buys more time to find an agreeable solution.


What Does This Mean for Travelers?

So will 5G impact your upcoming trip? It depends on the FAA’s findings over the next two weeks and whether things move ahead as planned later this month.

The FAA warned it may have to ground flights if the new 5G was turned on Wednesday, but Verizon and AT&T have already agreed to reduce their signals near airports. That compromise has been successful in other countries without incident.


If the FAA can’t find a solution that works for both sides, AT&T and Verizon are likely to put up a pretty big fight: They’ve already poured billions of dollars worth of infrastructure and years’ worth of time into launching these new networks.

From the airlines’ perspective, the consequences for moving ahead without a compromise could be bad for flyers. In the midst of their heated debate last month, Airlines for America said 5G deployment could affect “approximately 345,000 passenger flights, 32 million passengers, and 5,400 cargo flights … in the form of delayed flights, diversions, or cancellations,” citing an analysis of 2019 flights.

We hope that the regulators and telecoms can compromise here and allow 5G to go ahead while lessening their signals near places where planes need to use altimeters. If they can, we should see few disruptions.

If not, expect the arguing to continue.


Bottom Line

It’s the battle between the cell phone and the airplane.

The airline industry and wireless network operators have been going back and forth over this latest 5G technology – not for months, but for years. It pits the cell phone companies’ multi-billion-dollar push to improve network speeds against the fears of flight disruption and safety.

We can only hope this two-week pause buys the two sides the time they need to find a solution.

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