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Major airlines cancel, change flights to US over 5G dispute

Published:Thursday | January 20, 2022 | 12:06 AM
An Emirates jetliner comes in for landing at the Dubai International Airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on December 11, 2019.
An Emirates jetliner comes in for landing at the Dubai International Airport in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, on December 11, 2019.

Major international airlines cancelled flights heading to the United States or changed planes on Wednesday, the latest complication in a dispute over concerns that new 5G mobile phone service could interfere with aircraft technology.

Carriers took widely different approaches to the brewing crisis affecting international travel, from Middle Eastern airline Emirates drastically reducing its US-bound flights to Air France saying it would fly as normal.

It wasn’t immediately clear why the airlines made those decisions – or whether they took into account that mobile carriers AT&T and Verizon agreed this week to pause the roll-out of the new high-speed wireless service near key airports. But some said they received warnings from the US Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, or Boeing that the plane-maker’s 777 – used by carriers worldwide – was particularly affected by the new service.

It was also not clear how disruptive the cancellations would be. Several airlines said they would try to merely use different planes to maintain their schedules.

Similar mobile networks have been deployed in dozens of other countries – but there are some key differences in how the US network works that could make it more likely to cause problems for airlines.

The new 5G networks use a segment of the radio spectrum that is close to that used by radio altimeters, which measure the height of aircraft above the ground and help pilots land in low visibility. The US Federal Communications Commission, FCC, which sets a buffer between the frequency that 5G uses and the one that altimeters use, determined that it could be used safely in the vicinity of air traffic.

AT&T and Verizon have said their equipment will not interfere with aircraft electronics.

But FAA officials saw a potential problem, and the telecoms companies agreed to a pause on Tuesday while it is addressed.

On Wednesday, Emirates announced it would halt flights to several American cities due to “operational concerns associated with the planned deployment of 5G mobile network services in the US at certain airports”. It said it would continue flights to Los Angeles, New York and Washington.

Of particular concern appears to be the Boeing 777. Emirates only flies that model and the Airbus A380 jumbo jet – and it was among one of the most affected airlines.

Japan’s All Nippon Airways, ANA, said the FAA “has indicated that radio waves from the 5G wireless service may interfere with aircraft altimeters”.

“Boeing has announced flight restrictions on all airlines operating the Boeing 777 aircraft, and we have cancelled or changed the aircraft for some flights to/from the US based on the announcement by Boeing,” ANA said. It cancelled 20 flights over the issue to cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.


Japan Airlines said it will stop using the 777 model in the continental US for now. Eight of its flights were affected on Wednesday – three passenger trips and five for cargo. Taiwan’s EVA Air also said the FAA specifically said 777s may be affected, but it did not spell out how it would adjust its schedule.

Chicago-based Boeing Company did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Air India also announced on Twitter it would cancel flights to Chicago, Newark, New York and San Francisco because of the 5G issue.

Korean Air, Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific and Austrian Airlines said they substituted different planes for flights that were scheduled to use 777s. Germany’s Lufthansa also swapped out one kind of 747 for another on some US-bound flights.

British Airways cancelled several planned US-bound Boeing 777 flights and changed aircraft on others.

The FAA has said it will allow planes with accurate, reliable altimeters to operate around high-power 5G. But planes with older altimeters will not be allowed to make landings under low-visibility conditions.

Among the problems that may make the 5G roll-out an issue in the US and not other countries, according to the FAA, are that American towers use a more powerful signal strength than those elsewhere, the network operates on a frequency closer to the one altimeters use, and tower antennae point up at a higher angle.

The FCC’s chairwoman said in a statement that the 5G “deployment can safely co-exist with aviation technologies in the United States, just as it does in other countries around the world”. However, Jessica Rosenworcel urged the FAA to conduct its safety checks with “both care and speed”.

AT&T and Verizon spent tens of billions of dollars for the 5G spectrum known as C-band in a government auction last year.