Autoland Will Be Unavailable At US 100 Airports Over 5G Concerns

The Federal Aviation Administrator (FAA) released hundreds of NOTAMs on Wednesday ahead of the mid-January rollout of C-band 5G cellular networks in the United States. Included in the NOTAMs was a ban on auto-landings and radio-altimeter-based automated flight manoeuvres at 100 airports across the US.

The FAA is banning the use of autoland systems at around100 airports ahead of the rollout of 5G cellular networks. Photo: Getty Images

Telcos push ahead with 5G cellular network rollout

The January 19 rollout of the 5G networks by various telcos, including AT&T and Verizon, comes despite ongoing objections from the airline industry and safety agencies that the technology could compromise flight safety.

The airline industry and telcos have differing positions on the safety risks posed by rolling out C-band 5G networks near airports. Airlines say the networks could potentially interfere with aircraft radio altimeters. The communications industry says the 5G technology is safe.

However, the telcos did agree to a two-week rollout delay earlier this month. That was in response to a letter sent to them by Federal Aviation Authority and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. At the time, the airline industry was so concerned by the potential safety risk that lobby group Airlines for America was preparing to ask the Federal Court to block the rollout.

As the end date of the two-week delay nears, the FAA has pre-empted any rollout by issuing the NOTAMs on Wednesday. The FAA issued over 1,500 NOTAMs on the day. Not all deal with the potential safety risk posed by the 5G rollout, but many do. Included was a ban on autoland systems at 90 airports served by passenger airlines and at several additional cargo carrier only airports.

“Aircraft with untested altimeters or that need retrofitting or replacement will be unable to perform low-visibility landings where 5G is deployed,” said the FAA.

Airlines for America is warning the changes the 5G rollout causes could impact around 340,000 flights annually. Photo: Getty Images

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FAA ban on using autoland systems

Autoland is a system that automates an aircraft’s landing procedures under the watchful eye of the flight crew. The system helps the aircraft negotiate issues like bad weather that might make landing difficult or dangerous. Altimeters feed in data. However, if that data is corrupted by nearby 5G networks, it could disrupt the safe working of autoland systems.

“The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized telecom companies to use 5G spectrum that is adjacent to frequencies utilized by aircraft equipment known as radio altimeters,” says Airlines for America.

“Because of the risk of interference, the FAA is preparing to put in place safety restrictions that will be highly disruptive to airline passengers.”

Among the impacted airports are those in Chicago, Dallas Fort Worth, Houston, New York, Seattle, Boston, and Los Angeles.

Telcos insist the C-band 5G networks are safe for aircraft. Photo: Getty Images

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High stakes as airlines scramble to find workarounds

Citing 2019 traffic levels, Airlines for America says the 5G rollout and resulting NOTAMs stand to disrupt approximately 345,000 passenger and 5,400 cargo flights annually, impacting up to 32 million passengers and costing the airline industry U$1.7 billion.

While multiple telcos use the contentious C-band 5G technology, not all do. Some telcos, including T-Mobile, are making it clear that they do not yet use the C-band spectrum the FAA is so concerned about.

But other telcos are keen to ramp up their C-band 5G usage after spending billions to acquire the relevant wireless licenses to do so.

Just how the Janaury 19 5G rollout will impact the airline industry remains hard to ascertain precisely. Airlines and safety agencies are adaptable and will seek workarounds. Already they say GPS guided approaches will still be possible at some impacted airports.