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5G cleared near several airports, but some regional jets may be grounded: NPR

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Aircraft that continue to be subject to flight restrictions around 5G mobile towers are disproportionately smaller jets flown by regional airlines. J. Scott Applewhite / AP hide caption

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP
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Aircraft that continue to be subject to flight restrictions around 5G mobile towers are disproportionately smaller jets flown by regional airlines.

J. Scott Applewhite / AP

The Federal Aviation Administration is paving the way for Verizon and AT&T to turn on more 5G wireless network towers as the regulator's concerns about 5G signals interfering with critical safety equipment on commercial jets at most airports have diminished.

However, there may still be significant flight delays, diversions and cancellations at some airports, as the FAA still has not verified that certain aircraft would be free of 5G interference when taking off and landing in bad weather there.

The aircraft that remain subject to flight restrictions are disproportionately smaller jets flown by regional airlines, which work in partnership with the larger airlines such as American, Delta and United. And the 5G problem could add to the large number of flight disruptions already happening this weekend due to severe winter storms in parts of the Midwest, Mid-Atlantic and northeastern regions of the country.

The National Weather Service said in a counseling that high winds and heavy snowfall from this weekend's North Easter will create blizzard-like conditions, making travel in some places "almost impossible".

However, in some airports where flights can still take off and land under reduced visibility, some types of regional jets are nonetheless banned from flying due to concerns that radio signals from nearby 5G mobile phone towers will interfere with radio altimeters on the planes.

Altimeters measure exactly how high the aircraft is above the ground and are a critical tool for pilots who make instrument landings in bad weather when visibility is reduced.

Verizon and AT&T use a segment of the "C" band in the radio spectrum for their 5G service that is very close to the radio frequencies used by altimeters. The FAA says interference from wireless broadband operations can make altimeter readings inaccurate and unreliable, and as a result, some critical flight systems may not work properly during takeoffs and landings.

As a precautionary measure, the FAA has issued dozens of notices to air missions (NOTAMs) banning certain operations involving certain aircraft at certain airports. One of these airports is Paine Field in Everett, Washington, north of Seattle, where every single commercial flight Monday and Tuesday this week was canceled.

"Oh, it's always sunshine in Seattle," joked Brett Smith, CEO of Propeller Airports, the private company that operates Paine Field, before admitting that "unfortunately it's raining a lot at this time of year and we've had our fair share of rain over the last few months. "

Rain and dense fog were the problems earlier in the week. Smith said that in the past, such conditions could delay a few flights and perhaps even cancel one or two, "but not our entire schedule. It never happened," until this week, when all 24 scheduled commercial arrivals and departures both Monday and Tuesday were scrapped because the FAA will not allow the Embraer E175s, the only commercial jets currently using Paine Field, to operate there in low visibility.

"It's hugely frustrating," Smith said, noting that hundreds of travelers and all of his airport salesmen suffered as a result.

"This should not have happened," he said.

All canceled flights on Paine Field are operated by Horizon Air, a regional airline owned and operated exclusively by Alaska Airlines. Of the 300 flights that Horizon performs on average each day, about 135, or 45% of them, are on the Embraer E175 with 76 seats.

"Really, it's a disproportionate impact on this E175 aircraft, which is not only common in our fleet but also in a number of other regional airlines around the country," said Horizon CEO Joe Sprague.

And Sprague fears that even more smaller airports served by regional airlines like his will be affected as telecommunications carriers activate more high-speed 5G wireless services, as Friday's FAA announcement allows them to do.

"The activation of 5G towers near airports that took place last week was just the first wave that AT&T and Verizon are planning, and that there are several subsequent waves of activations, each of which is likely to will include smaller and smaller communities, "which affect even more airports, airlines and would be air travelers, Sprague said.

The rollout of new 5G service near US airports this month by Verizon and AT&T has been plagued by delays, confusion and controversy. After delaying the launch of the high-speed wireless service late last year, the telecom giants had to turn on their 5G towers 5. January. But they agreed to another two-week delay as the FAA and airlines raised concerns about altimeter interference.

On January 18, after the FAA and the major airlines warned of potentially catastrophic flight disruptions, they reached an agreement with Verizon and AT&T to further delay power to some 5G network towers near some airports, while the FAA worked to determine which flight altimeters that are free. interference and would be reliable and accurate in 5G areas.

The FAA has now determined that 20 types of radio altimeters are safe and reliable in 5G environments and have thus approved 90% of commercial flights for take-offs and landings in low visibility at most of the country's airports.

In a statement Friday, the FAA said the wireless companies "have provided more accurate data on the exact location of wireless transmitters and supported more thorough analysis of how 5G C-band signals interact with sensitive aircraft. The FAA used this data to determine , that it is possible to safely and more accurately map the size and shape of the areas around airports where 5G signals are attenuated, reducing the areas where wireless operators delay their antenna activation.This will allow wireless providers to turn on more towers as they implement new 5G service in major markets across the United States. "

But that does not make it entirely clear to many regional jets, including the E175 and its smaller sibling, the Embraer E145.

And these and other smaller regional jets actually make up a significant portion of the commercial aviation network in the United States

Often, when you fly with a regional airline, you may not even know it. You have probably booked the flight with an airline such as American, Delta or United. The pilots and flight attendants are dressed in the uniforms of these airlines, and the small planes are called United Express, American Eagle or Delta Connection.

But they are actually 17 separate airlines, including SkyWest, Horizon, Endeavor and Republic, among others.

"The big airlines and their equipment, they're way too big to serve smaller airports that have fewer passengers traveling every day," said Regional Airline Association President and CEO Faye Malarkey Black. "So they partner with regional airlines and regional airlines specialize in operating smaller regional aircraft that are the right size to reach the customers traveling from smaller and often rural cities."

Malarkey Black says that although they are not so well known, regional airlines fly 43% of the country's departures and reach 94% of the country. In fact, regional airlines fly the only commercial air service to 66% of US airports.

But they were largely left out by the recent agreement between the major airlines, the FAA and Verizon, and AT&T on how to minimize possible 5G interference with air navigation systems.

"We have a feeling and a sense that when this agreement was concluded, it was cut in consultation with the major users of the system," Malarkey Black said. "And for that reason, it did not meet our needs."

The problems with 5G come at a very difficult time for regional airlines as they struggle to recover from the huge drop in demand for flights caused by the pandemic and are trying to cope with an acute shortage of pilots, flight attendants and aviation mechanics, many of whom are leaving regions to move up the ranks of the better paying major airlines.

Malarkey Black said it is causing some of the major airlines, including US and United, to cut back on regional flights to smaller cities.

"When we are dealing with a shortage of the workforce that is forcing a capacity withdrawal, and history tells us that whenever the major airlines are forced to withdraw capacity, the smallest communities are hit first and worst and we see it now with a pilot shortage. "

The pandemic already forced four regional airlines to go bankrupt. To avoid further disruptions, the regional airlines are asking the FAA and the telecommunications companies to find a way to solve the 5G problems and approve more regional jets to fly in and out of smaller airports in bad weather.

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