The pandemic has drastically altered the experience of flying, from mask regulations to waived change fees. However, beginning early next year, even more changes to air travel may be implemented, none of which are related to the coronavirus.
According to aviation industry estimates, these changes might result in aircraft delays or diversions affecting tens of millions of passengers on hundreds of thousands of flights.
It all boils down to a political battle over 5G, the next-generation cellular technology that’s starting to show up in the latest devices. Here’s everything you need to know about it.
Despite promises from federal telecom authorities and cellular carriers, transportation regulators are concerned that a version of 5G set to go live in January would interfere with some aeroplane equipment, and many aviation industry groups share those concerns.
The FAA is concerned that 5G cellular towers near some airports, rather than air travellers’ mobile devices, may cause readings from aircraft equipment designed to tell pilots how far they are from the ground to be thrown off. Radar altimeters are systems that are used during a flight and are considered vital equipment. (In contrast to traditional altimeters, which rely on air pressure readings and do not use radio signals to determine height, radar altimeters use radio signals to determine altitude.)
The FAA is so concerned that it issued an emergency directive this month prohibiting pilots from using potentially compromised altimeters near airports where limited visibility would otherwise necessitate their use. In other cases, this new restriction could prevent planes from landing at certain airports since pilots would be unable to land using only instruments.
It’s unclear which airports may be affected by this restriction. The FAA stated when it issued the order that the exact airports will be determined after it received additional information from cellular carriers about where the 5G infrastructure would be deployed. (A request for comment from the FAA for this storey was not immediately returned.)
The time is running out. Wireless operators are set to launch 5G service on Jan. 5, which will rely on the radio frequencies that the FAA is concerned about.
Large swathes of California, Florida, New England, Texas, and the Midwest will have 5G coverage, according to a service map released by the Federal Communications Commission. However, aviation groups worry that it might put some of the country’s busiest airports, including those in Los Angeles, New York, and Houston, in jeopardy.