Canadian officials and airline leaders are weighing the potential impacts of 5G technology on “critical” aircraft technology amid warnings from American air industry heads that deploying the technology under current rules could cause a “catastrophic” aviation crisis.
AT&T on Tuesday paused plans to turn on a limited number of 5G towers located near certain U.S. airport runways. That followed warnings from the CEOs of major U.S. airlines that the technology could interfere with vital aviation systems and create “chaos” for flights landing at the affected airports.
A Canadian government official told Global News work is currently underway to better understand the potential impacts of 5G on “crucial” aviation technology: specifically, the radio altimeters.
The U.S. airline industry lobby group Airlines 4 America describes radio altimeters as “crucial aircraft avionics that measure the distance between an aircraft and the ground.”
At issue, the lobby group says, is the fear that current U.S. rules allow telecommunications companies to operate their 5G networks at a range on the radiofrequency spectrum that lets them butt up against the range used by aircraft radio altimeters.
Effectively, the U.S. airline heads say the current rules run the risk of allowing interference on the frequencies used by pilots and aircraft systems to gauge their distance from the ground.
“Multiple modern safety systems on aircraft will be deemed unusable causing a much larger problem than what we knew,” the airline leaders said in a letter to U.S. federal officials reported on by Reuters.
“Airplane manufacturers have informed us that there are huge swaths of the operating fleet that may need to be indefinitely grounded.”
Canadian airlines offered varying responses when contacted by Global News about whether they believe the 5G rollout in the U.S. will pose dangers, and whether they have concerns about the future rollout of the technology by Canadian telecommunication companies.
Rogers, Bell and Telus own the majority of 5G spectrum in Canada.
They are building their 5G networks using equipment from Nokia and Ericsson.
“Indeed, the interference from 5G wireless service is a concern for Transport Canada and all Canadian airlines,” said Pierre Tessier, a spokesperson for Air Transat. “For the moment, we are analyzing the situation and are in discussion with all stakeholders concerned by this issue in Canada.”
Denise Kenny, a spokesperson for WestJet, said the airline has been working alongside Transport Canada and has “established several technical rules and protective measures to mitigate potential interference to radio altimeters.”
“As such, WestJet has not identified any material risk to our operations regarding the rollout of 5G across Canada,” Kenny said in an email.
“We continue to monitor the 5G rollout in the U.S. and at this time, given our flight frequencies and destinations served, we do not foresee any significant operational impacts to our guests travelling to the U.S. Similar to other major airlines, in the event of low-weather operations, we anticipate we may experience occasional delays, however, as noted, we expect these impacts to be minimal.”
Air Canada said the airline is “closely following” the situation in the U.S.
“While we have procedures in place and use aircraft types that ensure safe operations, we are engaged on this matter as we continually work with Canadian, U.S. and other regulators, and aircraft manufacturers, to further enhance safety,” said a spokesperson for the airline.
They referred further questions to the U.S. airline lobby group.
At the same time, the Air Line Pilots Association International also raised concerns on Tuesday.
The group is the largest airline pilots association in the world and represents roughly 61,000 pilots working for U.S. and Canadian airlines.
“Radar altimeter interference from 5G signals can take the form of loss of radar altitude information or, worse, incorrect radar altitude information unknowingly being generated,” the association said in a statement on Tuesday. “There have been fatal accidents associated with incorrect radar altitude, most recently Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 in Amsterdam in 2009.”
The pilot association said the 5G signals in the U.S. “are at higher power levels than any other deployment currently in use elsewhere in the world and also with closer proximity to airports.”
Canada, the group noted, has already placed restrictions on using the spectrum band in question around 26 different domestic airports in a bid to reduce potential risk.
Air Emirates has also suspended flights into nine U.S. airports, citing concerns about the planned 5G deployments around certain airports.
With a file from Global’s Jackson Proscow.