IATA urges the rest of the world to learn from US 5G drama

As if it doesn’t already have enough to worry about, the International Air Transport Association fears the US experience with 5G near airports applies elsewhere too.

In the US, Verizon and AT&T keep having to delay the rollout of 5G using C-band near airports because the Federal Aviation Administration is worried it will interfere with aircraft altimeters, which use the same frequency. While it has always seemed absurd that this matter wasn’t addressed before the government extorted huge sums of money from operators for the right to do so, it’s also reasonable to assume the matter is not restricted to the US.

As its name implies, IATA is the trade body that represents the global airline industry. It just had its 78th AGM at a time when fuel prices are through the roof, airlines keep having to cancel flights because they don’t want to pay for sufficient staff and everyone hates air travel because of its environmental impact. Nonetheless, the latest developments in the US seem to have made this an unavoidable addition to the agenda.

“We must not repeat the recent experience in the United States, where the rollout of C-band spectrum 5G services created enormous disruption to aviation, owing to the potential risk of interference with radio altimeters that are critical to aircraft landing and safety systems,” said Willie Walsh, IATA’s Director General.

“In fact, many countries have successfully managed to facilitate the requirements of 5G service providers, while including necessary mitigations to preserve aviation safety and uninterrupted services. These include, for example, Brazil, Canada, France and Thailand.”

Essentially attempting to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted, IATA called on governments and regulators to check in with airlines before doshing out potentially troublesome 5G spectrum. Now there’s an idea. As ever with this matter, the underlying theme is buck-passing between all concerned.

“FAA’s unilateral decision to require airlines to replace or upgrade their existing radio altimeters – which are approved by both the FAA and the US Federal Communications Commission – by July 2023 is deeply disappointing and unrealistic,” moaned Walsh. “The FAA has not even approved or certified all the safety solutions that it will require, nor have systems providers been able to say with certainty when the equipment will be available for much of the fleet. So how can there be any confidence in the timeline?

“Furthermore, FAA can provide no guarantee that airlines will not have to carry out further upgrades to radio altimeters as even more powerful 5G networks are deployed in the near future. Safety is our highest priority, but it cannot be achieved with this rushed approach. The FAA needs to continue working with all stakeholders collaboratively and transparently, including the FCC and the telecom sector, to define solutions and deadlines that reflect reality.”

He does have a point. This clear example of dysfunction between US agencies is something IATA is apparently worried will be repeated elsewhere. If that specific band does present a safety threat to airplanes then it doesn’t seem too much to ask for it not to be deployed near airports. If that’s the solution, however, then surely operators should be refunded part of their associated license fees, since they’re not getting what they paid for.


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