February 27, 2024

Executives of major U.S airlines put out a warning for an impending “catastrophic aviation crisis” on Jan. 17 due to AT&T and Verizon deploying 5G service towers near airports.

To break down this situation, Daniel Prather, professor of aviation science, explains what 5G is.

“5G is the fifth generation mobile network,” Prather said. “It is a newly activated global wireless standard that enables a new kind of network that is designed to connect virtually everyone and everything.”

The reason AT&T and Verizon want to deploy this internet service is because it allows for increased connectivity and ultra fast internet, creating better service for their customers.

However, by creating cellular towers and the antennas needed, airplanes can experience technical disruptions.

“5G uses frequencies in a radio spectrum called the C-band,” Prather said. “These frequencies can be close to those used by aircraft radio altimeters, a device installed in the aircraft instrument panel that measures the frequency of radio pulses reflecting off the earth’s surface to help indicate the height of the aircraft above ground. With GPS, the aircraft altimeter is relied upon during low altitude operations, such as during an instrument approach in poor weather. This is a critical phase of flight and instrument readings must be without error. Being wrong, even if only by a few feet, is not acceptable.”

Mackenzie Degn, junior aviation flight major, talks about the trouble this interference can cause.

“Normally, in smaller amounts, wireless connection doesn’t do much harm,” Degn said. “But for an airliner, there is much more interference. It causes systems to be misled, and even by a fraction, that can be deadly. We can be told to turn the wrong way or even crash into terrain.”

After the warning was issued, the Federal Aviation Association immediately began checking and certifying specific aircraft types able to operate in 5G areas.

As of Jan. 29, 78% of the U.S. commercial airline fleet has been approved to operate in 5G areas.

“5G connection is still relatively new in the technological world,” said Blaine Burrer, senior aviation flight major. “2.4G is a weaker signal but it can travel through material much easier, whereas 5G is stronger but has a smaller range.”

Passengers on commercial flights are always instructed to turn off their phones before takeoff, which shows an example of how strong the effects of wireless signals can be.

“For low altitude operations such as takeoff and landing, FAA rules require that anything at all that might interfere with the aircraft altimeter be turned off,” Prather said. “The FAA always errs on the side of safety.”

Degn emphasized the importance of abiding by regulations such as turning devices to airplane mode when traveling by air, fastening seatbelts and following instructions.

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