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U.S. Airline CEOs warn of ‘catastrophic’ disruption of 5G rollout

The aviation industry is facing "catastrophic" disruptions from the rollout of a new 5G service this week, airline executives have warned.

In a letter sent Monday to U.S. transportation and economic officials and obtained by NBC News, the executives of major airlines said the launch could fly on the ground, leaving "tens of thousands of Americans" stranded abroad.

The warning came ahead of Wednesday's rollout of the new C-Band 5G service from telecommunications giants AT&T and Verizon. It also comes as airlines continue to struggle with the fallout from widespread flight cancellations driven by the proliferation of the omicron variant of Covid-19 and a series of winter storms that caused travel chaos across the United States

The airlines warned that the 5G signals risk interfering with safety equipment that pilots rely on to take off and land in bad weather.

"Unless our large hubs are cleared to fly, the vast majority of travelers and shipping will essentially be grounded," they said in the letter, which was signed by top executives of American Airlines, United Airlines, Delta Air Lines, Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue, along with leaders of UPS and FedEx.

"Immediate intervention is necessary to avoid significant operational disruptions for air passengers, dispatchers, the supply chain and the provision of necessary medical supplies," the letter said.

Without approval, it added: "To be honest, the nation's trade will stall."

The letter was addressed to Brian Deese, Director of the National Economic Council, Secretary of Transport Pete Buttigieg, Stephen Dickson, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator, and Jessica Rosenworcel, President of the Federal Communications Commission.

Fifth generation wireless technology, commonly known as 5G, promises to deliver ultra-fast Internet speeds, extra bandwidth and increased connectivity, with telecom companies around the world struggling to roll out the service.

Both AT&T and Verizon have previously insisted that 5G networks work securely without interference in nearly 40 countries and would do the same in the United States. They declined to comment further Monday.

The concern is that the air wave spectrum used by 5G technology may collide with the signals used by radio altimeters, measuring instruments that help pilots determine the distance from the ground to the bottom of an aircraft during low visibility operations.

Both companies have agreed to maintain buffer zones around at least 50 airports to reduce the possibility of interference. And Wednesday's rollout of the new 5G service comes after an already two-week delay, which was requested by the Ministry of Transport in response to concerns from air traffic controllers.

AT&T and Verizon initially rejected the government's request in early January, but reversed the course and agreed to a two-week delay.

At the time, Buttigieg said talks between the FAA, major airlines and wireless carriers were "healthy."

Airline executives said they wanted the service to be rolled out "all over the country except within the approximately 2 miles of airport runways at the affected airports."

"This will make it possible to implement 5G, while avoiding harmful impacts on the aviation industry, travelers, the supply chain, vaccine distribution, our workforce and the wider economy," they said, suggesting that 5G rollout could also potentially affect the distribution of Covid- 19 vaccines.

As the 5G service goes live on Wednesday, the FAA has said it will take the precaution of banning pilots from using altimeters during landing at more than 80 airports near 5G locations. Major airports in Dallas, New York, Chicago and Seattle are among those expected to be hit.

The FAA said it would "continue to ensure the traveling public is secure as wireless companies implement 5G."

"The FAA continues to work with the aviation industry and wireless companies to try to limit 5G-related flight delays and cancellations," it added in a statement.

On Sunday, it said it had cleared an estimated 45 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet to "make low-term landings at many of the airports where the 5G C band will be deployed" from Wednesday.

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But in a statement shared with NBC News, United Airlines said the federal government's current 5G rollout plan would "have a devastating impact on aviation."

The airline said the resulting chaos could potentially adversely affect as many as 1.25 million United passengers.

It said the airlines wanted the U.S. government to formulate policies to ensure 5G technology could be implemented safely.

"We do not want to compromise on security - period. But governments in other countries have successfully designed policies to ensure the safe implementation of 5G technology, and we are simply asking the US government to do the same," the airline said.

"We ask the Biden administration to act quickly and apply the same common sense solutions here that have clearly worked so well around the world," it read.

Tom Costello, Jay Blackman, Jay Varela, Jo Ling Kent and Ahiza García-Hodges the contribution.

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