Airplane landing against sunset

US risks travel disruptions as FAA refuses to extend 5G aircraft refit deadline

Image credit: Dreamstime

Travel chaos could arise as the Biden administration has rejected airlines' request to extend the deadline to retrofit aircraft altimeters and avoid 5G wireless interference.

The deadline for airlines to complete 5G aircraft upgrades will not be extended beyond Juy 1st, 2023, the US Transportation Department has confirmed.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg first announced the decision in a call on Tuesday with representatives of the country's largest airlines, Reuters has reported. Buttigieg reportedly said that airlines had made progress, but urged them to work aggressively to continue retrofitting planes. 

The conflict derives from a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) warning that 5G technologies could affect sensitive aircraft instruments such as altimeters - which provide pilots with an accurate reading of the plane’s proximity to the ground, helping to minimise the risk of accidents or collisions - and thus having significant impact on flights in low-visibility atmospheric conditions. The concerns led to disruptions at some US airports in January 2022 involving international carriers.

Last year, Verizon Communications and AT&T voluntarily agreed to delay some C-Band 5G use until July 2023 so air carriers could retrofit aircraft to ensure they will not face interference. Over the past year, airline representatives have been pushing for an extension of this deadline, warning they will be forced to ground some planes that haven't been retrofitted for 5G yet. 

"Supply chain issues make it unlikely that all aircraft can be upgraded by the 1 July deadline, threatening operational disruptions during the peak northern summer travel season," the International Air Transport Association, which represents more than 100 carriers that fly to the United States, said earlier this week. 

"Airlines did not create this situation. They are victims of poor government planning and coordination," added Nick Careen, from IATA.

Acting FAA Administrator Billy Nolen said last week the FAA has "given airlines until July of this year to retrofit. Now upon we get to July 1st, if they haven't retrofitted, meaning they will not be able to take advantage of lower visibility approaches that may result in a divert."

Nolen added that if airlines they have not retrofitted by next year "they will not be able to operate" in US airspace.

Separately, the FAA on Tuesday proposed seven airworthiness directives for many Boeing aircraft to avoid 5G C-band interference. These would require revising aircraft flight manuals by 30 June to prohibit some landings and include specific operating procedures for calculating landing distances and certain approaches when in the presence of 5G C-band interference.

Boeing said it "continues to work with suppliers, regulators, the airlines and telecom companies to ensure long-term stability and help mitigate operational restrictions where possible."

If approved, the proposed FAA guidelines would impact 14,600 planes worldwide. 

The UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has said "there have been no confirmed instances where 5G interference has resulted in aircraft system malfunction or unexpected behaviour". But it has stressed that "different national mobile telecommunication strategies may mean that some [countries] have a higher threat exposure than others".

Last year, the IATA said the costs to retrofit airplanes would far exceed the $26m (£21.5m) estimated by the FAA, stressing the figure would be closer to $637m (£526m). 


Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles