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5G rollout brings few air travel disruptions as regional airlines await FAA approval

After averting a crisis, wireless carriers say they will work with the aviation industry to resolve outstanding issues

An American Eagle passenger flight lands Wednesday at Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Va., across the Potomac River from Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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The rollout of new 5G networks in cities across the country brought only minor travel disruptions Wednesday, even as regional airlines continued to wait for clearance to use smaller planes during bad weather in parts of the country where interference could affect safety gear.

Major airlines had warned of the potential for disruptions, while some international carriers had canceled flights Wednesday into the United States. But the White House-brokered deal struck on the eve of the 5G rollout to limit deployment near airports appeared to avert travel disruptions that airline executives warned about earlier in the week.

Flight data firm FlightAware listed about 300 canceled flights, a decline from recent days.

The temporary deal — which still allowed 90 percent of the 5G network to come online — also appeared to reduce frustrations around an issue that had pitted airlines against two telecom giants, and left the Federal Communications Commission at odds with the Federal Aviation Administration.

The new 5G service uses airwaves known as the C-band. They are close to the spectrum used by devices on aircraft called radio altimeters, leading to concerns about interference. Altimeters provide precise measurements of a plane’s altitude and are critical when landing in bad weather with poor visibility.

The FAA said Wednesday it had approved the use of three additional types of altimeters in areas near 5G towers and appeared to have resolved outstanding issues with Boeing’s 777 jets, which had led to the international flight cancellations. The FAA said 62 percent of jets in the U.S. commercial fleet are cleared for low-visibility landings in places where interference could be an issue.

The FAA has approved the use of aircraft from Boeing and Airbus, but it said Wednesday it is still reviewing testing data for altimeters used in regional jets that connect to major hubs.

The limits on 5G deployments and the FAA approvals meant little interruption at larger airports across the country but left regional airlines waiting for approval to use smaller planes during times of low visibility. Faye Malarkey Black, president and chief executive of the Regional Airline Association, said regional carriers account for 43 percent of U.S. departures, mainly serving smaller airports.

She said while the White House and Department of Transportation are acting to protect aviation, they “have really overlooked a wide swath of the industry.”

“The only reason we’re not seeing terrible chaos is thanks to fair weather in much of the nation,” Black said. “If there’s weather, that’s a huge problem and it’s not a problem felt evenly. It’s been resolved in urban centers, but remains very much in place in smaller communities, mostly rural and remote communities.”

Black said one of her biggest concerns is what could happen if there is not an acceptable workaround for some types of aircraft.

Executives with Verizon and AT&T — the two companies that activated the 5G network — said Wednesday they planned to work with airlines and regulators to allay remaining concerns over the rollout.

Hans Vestberg, chief executive of Verizon, said he expected outstanding issues to be resolved fairly quickly.

“We just need to take the time so they feel good about the technology and all of that,” he said during an appearance on CNBC. “That’s happening, and of course the FCC is involved, the FAA is involved. All my technicians are involved because that’s where the discussion is happening. That’s what’s happening and the collaboration is good.”

Wireless carriers limited 5G near airports after airlines warned of major disruptions

AT&T said it was similarly ready to collaborate.

“We will continue to engage with the FAA, FCC and other stakeholders — including providing details about our deployments — to help facilitate the FAA’s technical assessments and clearance of aviation equipment,” said Alex Byers, a spokesman for the company.

Some international carriers that had canceled U.S.-bound flights Wednesday said they planned to resume normal operations after receiving safety assurances from U.S. regulators.

Japan Airlines told customers “we have received confirmation from the FAA that there is no longer a problem with the operation of the Boeing 777” and said it would resume flying its 777s to the United States on Thursday. ANA, another Japanese airline, said it would follow suit.

But at least one international carrier, Emirates, held off immediately resuming all flights.

On Tuesday, the Dubai-based airline announced it was suspending flights to nine U.S. cities, including Chicago, San Francisco and Dallas-Fort Worth. However, the carrier said it would continue to operate service to Los Angeles International, John F. Kennedy International in New York and Washington Dulles International.

By Wednesday, the carrier said it was restoring service to three additional cities — Boston, Houston and San Francisco.

“We are working closely with aircraft manufacturers and the relevant authorities to alleviate operational concerns, and we hope to resume our US services as soon as possible,” the carrier said in a note on its website.

Major domestic airlines reported few problems Wednesday. United Airlines said it expected “minor disruptions at some airports due to the remaining 5G restrictions.”

Morgan Durrant, a spokesman for Delta Air Lines, said the carrier had not encountered problems by Wednesday afternoon.

In a memo to staff, American Airlines Chief Operating Officer David Seymour said the carrier had canceled four flights and experienced some delays. There were more cancellation in the airline’s regional operation, he said.