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What’s happening with 5G and your upcoming flights

Rollouts for the high-speed service aren’t expected to cause many cancellations

(iStock/Washington Post illustration)

Between coronavirus pandemic-induced disruptions, weather catastrophes and omicron variant-related staff shortages, air travelers have navigated a lot of turbulence in recent years. The latest threat to the departure board is a little less obvious: the next wave of wireless service.

So what does your 5G phone have to do with your air travel plans? And how long will this be an issue? We spoke to tech experts, safety regulators and airlines to break it all down.

Wireless carriers to limit 5G near airports after airlines warn of major disruptions

What’s happening with 5G and airplanes?

Airlines warned this week that AT&T and Verizon’s planned rollout of 5G wireless service near airports could case “chaos” for air travel; several international carriers suspended or changed flights in the United States.

At issue is the C-band, the wireless spectrum some 5G services use. Not all 5G networks operate in the C-band spectrum frequency; for example, T-Mobile relies on a mid-band spectrum that does not interfere with airline operations. The Federal Aviation Administration says C-band frequencies can be close to those used by altitude-measuring safety equipment (radio altimeters), potentially causing interference.

Aviation consultant Bob Mann notes that the rollout doesn’t only impact commercial airlines. It also complicates business and cargo flights, medical evacuation and organ transport helicopters as well as military operations.

As a result, the FAA warned that it would have to impose restrictions on flight operations using certain types of safety equipment near antennas in C-band 5G networks. Flights landing at airports with the potential of low-visibility conditions are of the most concern.

On Tuesday, Verizon and AT&T agreed to delay the launch of the new networks around certain airports.

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Will this cancel my flight?

So far, the 5G rollout hasn’t caused many cancellations, but the FAA recommends that travelers with upcoming flights check with their airlines to confirm flight schedules.

According to the flight data firm FlightAware, about 300 flights were canceled Wednesday. That’s a decline from recent days.

“Almost everybody who is planning to take a flight … won’t see any change to their plans as a result of this kind of 5G staredown,” says Scott Keyes, the founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights and the author of “Take More Vacations.”

The reason for Keyes’s optimism is that the FAA has already given its blessing for the most common aircraft to fly, such as the Boeing 737 and Airbus 319.

Keyes also believes telecom companies will make accommodations to ensure the rollout doesn’t cause major disruptions.

“Maybe that’s self-interested because AT&T and Verizon don’t want to be blamed for hundreds of thousands of flight cancellations,” Keyes says.

The airline rescheduled your flight. What can you do?

What should I do if my flight is canceled?

Should an airline cancel your flight because of 5G complications, the easiest fix is to reschedule right away. You can go with a replacement automatically assigned to you, or request a specific flight.

But if that doesn’t work for you — say you no longer need to travel or can find a good alternative on your own — you are entitled to a refund under Department of Transportation rules.

If the flight is delayed “significantly,” you can also request a refund — but each airline determines what constitutes a significant delay.

Experts recommend downloading the airline’s app to get updates on a flight and asking for compensation like a food voucher or hotel room even if you aren’t eligible for a refund.

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Is it dangerous to fly?

Despite any of the latest 5G controversies, air travel remains safe, Keyes reminds travelers.

“The FAA really does not tolerate risk. Airlines and pilots really do not tolerate risk,” Keyes says. “They have systems, protocols, backups — everything just to make sure that even if 10 things go wrong, they can still land that plane safely.”

As rollout details get ironed out, the FAA says it is continuing to work with manufacturers to understand how altimeter data is used in other flight control systems. It will continue to impose restrictions on flight operations using certain types of radar altimeter equipment close to antennas in 5G networks accordingly.

“If there’s the possibility of a risk to the flying public, we are obligated to restrict the relevant flight activity until we can prove it is safe,” the agency said in a statement.

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Can I still use my phone on a flight?

Keeping your phone on near one of the 5G antennas isn’t going to bring your plane down. But you should still be putting your phone in airplane mode or disabling its cellular connection during your flight.

“People leave their phones on all the time inadvertently,” Mann says. “But strictly speaking, they’re not supposed to do that.”

How long will the 5G issue last?

Altimeter manufacturers have been evaluating data from wireless companies over the past two weeks to determine which planes are fit to fly and which need to have their radio altimeters retrofitted or replaced.

Based on that research, the FAA has approved 62 percent of the U.S. commercial airline fleet for use near 5G antennas of concern. Still, the agency says, even with these approvals, some flights at certain airports may still be affected.

Mann predicts it will end up taking several months for Verizon and AT&T to find a solution, but he expects fewer flights to be canceled as a result of this week’s developments.

Keyes doesn’t see the situation getting any worse than it is now.

“Do I expect this to become a full-fledged five-alarm fire? No,” Keyes says. “I’m pretty hopeful that this is going to get resolved without having a huge type of impact on travelers.”