FAA approves plan for some jets to fly near 5G waves

U.S. aviation regulators have granted approvals that will allow some airliners to operate in areas where new 5G wireless services are scheduled to begin on Wednesday, significantly reducing the potential impact on flight schedules.

The Federal Aviation Administration said Sunday that airline manufacturers have shown that cellphone signals will not cause interference with critical aircraft equipment in certain Airbus SE and Boeing Co models.

New 5G services from AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. are set to begin in many communities across the United States, broadcast on radio waves adjacent to those used by so-called radar altimeters on thousands of airliners , helicopters and other aircraft. Tests have shown that altimeters can give false readings in the presence of 5G signals.

“Even with these new approvals, flights at some airports may still be affected,” the FAA said in an emailed statement. “Passengers should check with their airlines if weather is forecast at a destination where 5G interference is possible.”

The FAA, in conjunction with aircraft manufacturers and wireless carriers, has conducted more detailed analysis to reduce the potential impact to the aviation system in recent weeks. It has approved many models of Airbus and Boeing aircraft equipped with two types of radar altimeters, representing approximately 45% of the US commercial fleet.

But the complex work continues and with a majority of airliners still subject to limitations, some level of flight disruption is likely.

The FAA action does not include Boeing’s 777 and 787 wide-body jets, or any of the small regional jets popular in the US aviation system. Additionally, some aircraft listed in the decision may have been fitted with other models of altimeters and are not covered.

An airport trade group said the introduction of 5G services should be delayed to lessen the impact, although it called the FAA’s action “a step in the right direction”.

“Airports will continue to prepare for potential diversions, delays and cancellations,” Airports Council International of North America President Kevin Burke said in an emailed statement.

The decision will allow low-visibility landings at no less than 48 of 88 U.S. airports with facilities for such arrivals, the FAA said. The use of highly sophisticated instrument landing systems is considered high-risk operations and has been among the hardest hit by the agency’s 5G restrictions.

As part of a compromise reached earlier this month, AT&T and Verizon agreed to limit the placement of cell towers near 50 of those 88 U.S. airports to mitigate the impact for six months.

The FAA noted in its statement that while it exempts some aircraft from the stricter limitations, it may also add new restrictions. The agency published on Friday a directive adding restrictions on landing 787s in the presence of 5G signals and other such actions are possible.

“The FAA also continues to work with manufacturers to understand how radar altimeter data is used in other flight control systems,” the agency said in the statement.

Wireless companies have paid more than $80 billion to access the frequency band, which has enabled them to offer much faster 5G mobile phone services. But aviation groups and the FAA fear it could compromise plane safety.

Last week, the agency issued more than 1,400 flight restrictions at airports and geographies across the country. The action announced on Sunday exempts or partially exempts planes from those orders.

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