AT&T and Verizon delay 5G rollout near airports amid airline showdown

Emirates and other airlines suspend US flights after industry warns 5G could cause commerce to 'grind to a halt'

The chief executives of the largest airlines in the US called for 5G technology to be limited near US airports, or risk 'a major disruption' to travel and shipping. AFP

AT&T and Verizon said they would temporarily delay turning on some wireless towers near key US airport runways to avert a looming aviation crisis after discussions with President Joe Biden's administration on Tuesday.

Airlines say thousands of flights could be grounded or delayed if the roll-out takes place near major airports. Airlines in India, Japan and the UAE have already moved to cancel many US flights.

The heads of 10 passenger and cargo airlines including American, Delta, United and Southwest said 5G will be more disruptive than they originally thought because dozens of large airports that were to have buffer zones to prevent 5G interference with aircraft will still be subject to flight restrictions announced last week by the Federal Aviation Administration, and because those restrictions will not be limited to times when visibility is poor.

"We are frustrated by the FAA's inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services," AT&T said.

Verizon added it will still launch its 5G Ultra Wideband network nationally, but will limit 5G networks around airports.

The FAA "and our nation's airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries," Verizon said.

Discussions with the Biden administration are centred on a proposal that would also allow about 90 per cent of the wireless tower deployment to go forward, Reuters reported, though it would impact 5G deployment near many large population centres.

"I want to thank Verizon and AT&T for agreeing to delay 5G deployment around key airports and to continue working with the Department of Transportation on safe 5G deployment at this limited set of locations," Mr Biden said in a statement.

"This agreement will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90 per cent of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled."

Despite Mr Biden's attempts to avoid disruptions, several foreign airlines on Tuesday moved to suspend US flights, including Dubai's Emirates airline.

Emirates announced it will suspend flights to several destinations in the US as of January 19 and until further notice, according to an announcement on the company's portal.

The move comes "due to operational concerns associated with the planned deployment of 5G mobile network services in the US," adding that the destinations include Boston, Chicago, Dallas Fort Worth, Houston, Miami, Newark, Orlando, San Francisco, and Seattle.

Reuters reported it would require delaying just over 500 towers from being activated near airports. The vast majority are Verizon towers.

Chief executives of the nation’s largest airlines say that interference from the wireless service on plane altimeters is worse than they originally thought.

“To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt” unless the service is blocked near major airports, the company heads said in a letter on Monday to federal officials including Transport Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who has previously taken the airlines’ side in the matter.

AT&T and Verizon initially planned to activate their new 5G wireless service on Wednesday after two previous delays from the original plan for an early December roll-out.

AT&T and Verizon say their equipment will not interfere with aircraft electronics, and that the technology is being safely used in many other countries. Critics of the airline industry say the carriers had several years to upgrade altimeters that might be subject to interference from 5G.

“Unless our major hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of the travelling and shipping public will essentially be grounded. This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays,” the group of chief executives said.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: January 19, 2022, 6:02 AM