Verizon and AT&T said Tuesday that they would delay the debut of new 5G cellular service near some airports, an attempt to address concerns that their equipment would interfere with airplane equipment when the service started Wednesday.
AT&T said in a statement that it had “voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways” while it continued to work with aviation regulators. Verizon said it would also go ahead with its Wednesday launch but would add some additional measures to address concerns around airports.
Neither company said where they would apply the new measures and it was not immediately clear whether the changes went far enough to satisfy airlines and aviation safety regulators and avoid mass flight cancellations.
The announcements came just after the executives of 10 airlines sent a letter to the transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, saying that they feared chaos at airports and cargo hubs because of restrictions put in place by aviation regulators to avoid interference between the new wireless service and plane equipment used during takeoffs and landings.
“Every one of the passenger and cargo carriers will be struggling to get people, shipments, planes and crews where they need to be,” the executives said. “To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”
On a day like this past Sunday, more than 1,100 flights would have been canceled because of Federal Aviation Administration restrictions put in place for the 5G rollout, affecting about 100,000 passengers, the group said.
The new 5G service uses so-called C-band frequencies, which are close to the portion of airwaves used by radio altimeters, devices that determine the distance between planes and the ground. That measurement is particularly important to pilots when visibility is limited.
Several major companies and Airlines for America, the industry’s trade organization that organized the letter, did not immediately provide estimates for how many flights would be canceled Wednesday if the 5G rollout happens as planned. In a separate statement Monday, United Airlines estimated that the disruptions would affect 1.25 million United passengers and at least 15,000 flights annually.
The airline group offered a solution in the letter: Allow 5G to be put in place nationwide starting Wednesday, except for within 2 miles of affected airport runways. On Tuesday, the U.S. Travel Association, a trade group that represents businesses across the sector, urged a delay in 5G implementation near airports of concern.
At least two international airlines said Tuesday that they would cancel or suspend flights to the U.S. on Wednesday because of the start of 5G service. One of them, Air India, said it would cancel flights from New Delhi to New York, San Francisco and Chicago and another from Mumbai to Newark. And Emirates, which is based in Dubai, said it planned to suspend service to several U.S. airports.
In a letter to staff Tuesday, American’s chief operating officer, David Seymour, warned of “major operational disruptions” caused by the 5G rollout because the potential for interference is not fully understood.
“To be very clear, we’re incredibly disappointed that we are at this point, that the entire U.S. airline industry is facing major disruption as new wireless technology is activated,” he said. “The two should be able to coexist, but that only comes with a better understanding of potential impacts.”
The industry and the aviation regulators had raised concerns about 5G interference over the past several years. In November 2020, for example, the International Air Transport Association, a global trade group, warned that such interference could trigger automated systems forcing planes to pull up to avoid phantom objects, or could prevent planes from warning pilots of real obstacles.
Airlines and the FAA began escalating warnings in recent months, leading Verizon and AT&T to delay their limited 5G rollout from December to early January and again to this Wednesday. The latest delay came after the FAA, which is part of Buttigieg’s department, reached an agreement at the start of January, buying more time to prepare safety precautions.
The FAA said at the time that it would no longer ask for further delays after Verizon and AT&T agreed to the most recent postponement. At the time, Airlines for America said in a statement that it would “continue to work with all stakeholders to help ensure that new 5G service can coexist with aviation safely.”
The telecommunications industry has pushed back against the concerns raised by the airlines and the FAA, noting that the implementation of 5G has been years in the making and that the service has already been introduced in Britain, France and other countries without incident.
“In our opinion, the technical information that is being used to generate concern shows improbable worst-case scenarios,” GSMA, a global wireless industry group, said Monday.
The FAA has noted, however, that there are technical differences in how 5G is being carried out in other countries. In the United States, planes would be protected from 5G interference only in the last 20 seconds of flight, compared with 96 seconds in France, for example. The temporary power limits that U.S. wireless companies agreed to are still about 2.5 times higher than the permanent limits used in France, according to information the agency posted online.
Last week, the FAA started issuing hundreds of notices to airlines providing updated guidance on how to land planes safely in low-visibility conditions where 5G service is of concern. On Sunday, the agency said it had cleared an estimated 45% of the U.S. commercial plane fleet to perform such landings safely, opening up runways at as many as 48 of the 88 airports most directly affected by potential 5G interference. The agency did not identify which airports had yet to be cleared.
The planes approved include some Boeing 737, 747, 757 and 767 models, as well as some Airbus A310, A319, A320, A321, A330 and A350 models, the FAA said. Not on the list were the Boeing 777 and 787, which are used for longer, international flights. American and United have dozens of 777s in service.
Lawmakers and safety experts have criticized the aviation regulator in recent years for failing to anticipate and prevent the problems that caused two fatal crashes of the Boeing 737 Max plane, killing 346 people and leading global aviation regulators to ban the plane for nearly two years.
The Federal Communications Commission, which distributes wireless spectrum, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .