Governments, aviation industry should work together to counter disruptions due to 5G rollout: IATA

'Maintaining safety of passengers, flight crews, and aircraft must continue to be governments’ highest priorities'

Governments, aviation industry should work together to counter disruptions due to 5G rollout: IATA

IATA’s Director General, Willie Walsh, said the recent experience in the US, where the rollout of 5G services created aviation disruption, should not be repeated.  

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has urged governments to work closely with the aviation industry to ensure that aviation and incumbent aviation safety systems can safely co-exist with new 5G services.

IATA stated that while it recognises the economic importance of making spectrum available to support next-generation commercial wireless telecommunications, maintaining current levels of safety of passengers, flight crews, and aircraft must continue to be one of the governments' highest priorities.

The call came as the industry was meeting in Doha at the 78th IATA Annual General Meeting (AGM). The 78th IATA AGM & World Air Transport Summit took place in Doha, Qatar from 19-21 June 2022, hosted by Qatar Airways. Around 1,000 aviation leaders from IATA member airlines, governments, industry stakeholders, and strategic partners among others attended the event. IATA represents around 290 airlines comprising 83% of global air traffic.

Willie Walsh, IATA's Director General, said, "We must not repeat the recent experience in the United States, where the rollout of C-band spectrum 5G services created enormous disruption to aviation, owing to the potential risk of interference with radio altimeters that are critical to aircraft landing and safety systems. In fact, many countries have successfully managed to facilitate the requirements of 5G service providers, while including necessary mitigations to preserve aviation safety and uninterrupted services. These include, for example, Brazil, Canada, France and Thailand."

Before deciding on any spectrum allocations or conducting spectrum auctions, IATA called for governments to ensure close coordination and mutual understandings between national spectrum and aviation safety regulators so that each frequency allocation/assignment is comprehensively studied and is proven not to adversely impact aviation safety and efficiency. Robust testing in coordination with aviation subject matter experts is critically important in providing necessary information.

IATA noted that airlines operating to or from and within the US continue to contend with the effects of the rollout of 5G, including a pending airworthiness directive from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requiring them to retrofit or upgrade radio altimeters at their own expense to enable the respective aircraft to continue to utilise CAT II and CAT III low-visibility approaches at many US airports where 5G C-Band service is currently or will be deployed in future. The timely availability of upgraded altimeters is a concern, as are the cost of these investments and the lack of certainty regarding the future spectrum environment. Furthermore, 19 additional telecommunications companies are scheduled to deploy 5G networks by December 2023.

"FAA's unilateral decision to require airlines to replace or upgrade their existing radio altimeters – which are approved by both the FAA and the US Federal Communications Commission – by July 2023 is deeply disappointing and unrealistic. The FAA has not even approved or certified all the safety solutions that it will require, nor have systems providers been able to say with certainty when the equipment will be available for much of the fleet. So how can there be any confidence in the timeline? Furthermore, FAA can provide no guarantee that airlines will not have to carry out further upgrades to radio altimeters as even more powerful 5G networks are deployed in the near future. Safety is our highest priority, but it cannot be achieved with this rushed approach. The FAA needs to continue working with all stakeholders collaboratively and transparently, including the FCC and the telecom sector, to define solutions and deadlines that reflect reality," said Walsh.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) both have recognised and reminded their member states and administrations of the importance of ensuring that existing aviation systems and services are free from harmful interference. This will become even more critical as more spectrum is being allocated to new generation telecommunications services.

Measures that have already been used by some governments include:

- Ensure thorough testing and sufficient spectrum separation between 5G C-band deployments and 4.2-4.4 GHz frequency band used by existing radio altimeters

- Clearly codify and enforce the maximum power limit for 5G C-band transmission and downward tilting of 5G antennae, particularly in the vicinity of flightpaths

- Establishment of sufficient 5G C-band prohibition and precautionary zones around airports

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