Between snowstorms hitting large swathes of the East Coast of the United States, the Omicron variant of COVID-19, and continued supply chain crises, airlines have faced a gauntlet of events for cancellations in recent weeks. However, one issue stands out: Verizon and AT&T’s 5G wireless service rollout. Alarm bells were being raised by the public and the industry.

The CEOs of American, Delta, United, and Southwest Airlines warned that 5G service deployed near airports could interfere with essential aircraft instruments. Major logistics companies Fedex and UPS Airlines bluntly warned that “the nation’s commerce would grind to a halt” should 5G disrupt airplane instruments. Concerned voices from social media added both insight and noise.

The result is Verizon and AT&T voluntarily delaying the rollout of 5G around several crucial airports in order for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to determine which type of aircraft will be safe to land at airports with 5G service.

Leaders in the aviation industry have asserted that 5G can interfere with aircraft’s altimeters, which are used for measuring a plane’s altitude and are crucial to takeoff and landing. How 5G interference with altimeters comes down to the proximity with which 5G – which utilizes the C-band radio wavelength between 3.7 and 4.2 gigahertz (GHz) – comes to the frequency used by most airline altimeters. Aircraft radar altimeters operate within 4.2 to 4.4 GHz, which do fall into the C-band range at the lower frequency.

Altimeter interference can lead to the loss of radar altitude information or in the absolutely worst case, skewed altitude information being generated. However, it is important to acknowledge that regulators like the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the FAA were aware of the timeline for 5G service for two years. 5G rollouts have now been pushed back twice, which has inhibited the growth of a projected 16 million jobs.

As of this writing, the FAA has cleared 13 airline model altimeters for flight. The FAA has also approved 78 percent of the U.S. commercial fleet to conduct low-visibility landings and takeoffs at airports where 5G has been deployed. Other altimeters on older aircraft must be either retrofitted to avoid interference with 5G or be replaced entirely. The United States’ haphazard rollout of 5G is due to differing characteristics of the U.S. networks design and functionality. Key differences like U.S. cellular towers having a stronger signal strength and cell tower antennas being angled higher contribute to problems that the FAA state merit further investigation.

Aircraft manufacturers like Boeing, whose 777 was the second-most widely used plane for flights to the U.S., initially had been the subject of potential 5G interference problems, but has since been cleared by the FAA. Leaders from both the aviation and telecommunications industries have expressed frustration with the U.S. rollout of 5G, with Emirates CEO Tim Clark calling the botched rollout “one of the most delinquent and irresponsible episodes of my career.”

Clearly, more coordination and communication between government agencies and industry participants would have prevented such a critical safety issue only coming to light at the last minute. The FCC has been forced into a position where it must act as a referee between two industries that are vital. In multiple countries worldwide, 5G concerns were addressed by limiting the strength of 5G signals around airports. Industry and regulators were able to successfully deploy 5G, while ensuring that safety risks to aircraft were minimum due to close cooperation.

A wholesale stoppage of 5G deployment in the U.S. hurts jobs and economic growth, while also leading to the current feud with the aviation industry. A phased rollout of 5G, with careful lowering of signal strengths like what was accomplished in Canada and France has been a model to work off of. Regulators must communicate with other agencies to ensure that such a botched rollout does not become the norm for introducing innovative technologies to the U.S.


Written by Roy Mathews, Public Policy Associate


The Alliance for Innovation and Infrastructure (Aii) is an independent, national research and educational organization. An innovative think tank, Aii explores the intersection of economics, law, and public policy in the areas of climate, damage prevention, energy, infrastructure, innovation, technology, and transportation.