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Airlines grapple with safety concerns amid 5G rollout

Posted at 10:29 PM, Jan 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-20 10:18:07-05

GREEN BAY, Wis. (NBC 26) — A national battle to create better wireless connection and flying planes safely is unsolved… for now.

"It's two things that actually the American public wants," EAA Director of Communications Dick Knapinski said. "They want the latest in technology for their cellphones and everything else. But they also want safe air travel."

AT&T and Verizon opted on Tuesday to delay the rollout of high-speed 5G service at towers located near some American airports. The decision came after airlines expressed concern that new signals could lead to flight cancellations.

"You have a situation where the airlines, especially internationally, are saying we're not going to fly into the U.S. because we're not sure there won't be interference from 5G," Knapinski said.

The fear is that interference would impact radar altimeters, which tell how high above the ground a plane is.

"Is it something where you have a flight coming in poor weather and suddenly the flight crew does not have an idea, using instruments, exactly how far above the ground they are?" Knapinski asked.

Still, the telecommunication giants deployed scaled-back 5G connection on Wednesday. AT&T released a statement saying nearly 40 other countries were already operating the tech safely.

"As 5G becomes more established, it'll become more prevalent in other areas of the country," Knapinski said. "Maybe not so much right now in Northeast Wisconsin, but certainly as we move on."

The FAA cites the location of 5G antennas near airports with high traffic as a key concern.

Green Bay Austin Straubel International Airport Director Marty Piette is more worried about large airports in places like Chicago and Atlanta.

"We will watch it on our end to see if that impacts any of our inbound or outbound flights as far as delays and cancellations," he said.

Experts ensure travelers that personal cellphones won't disrupt a commercial plane. And airlines will opt to cancel flights if there's any issue.

"I think it's just a matter of the FAA getting through all of the aircraft systems, making sure everything is compatible," Piette said. "Once everything is certified, then I think this issue goes away."

AT&T and Verizon have not said how long it will delay 5G around some airports. Experts believe a solution could be to limit the signal power.