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Airlines brace for cancellations and delays due to new 5G rollout taking place this week

Consumers and businesses could also be affected

Airplane flying concept
Photo (c) Aaron Foster - Getty Images
Over the last few weeks, airlines have been forced to deal with cancellations brought on by pandemic-stricken workers and weather conditions. Now, they’re facing a completely different specter – one brought on by a new 5G service set to be launched this week by AT&T and Verizon.

Airlines first waved the red flag on the issue in December, moving AT&T and Verizon to agree to hold off on 5G deployment until January 20 to help prevent problems within the aviation industry. Now that the launch’s reset is nearing the eleventh hour, major U.S. airlines are doing all they can to bring about another pause.

On Monday, the chief executives of several major U.S. airlines – including American, Delta, Southwest, JetBlue, and United – publicly cautioned that the "vast majority of the traveling and shipping public will essentially be grounded" if the new 5G technology is permitted to begin.

United Airlines separately raised a concern that the issue could affect more than 15,000 of its flights, more than a million passengers, and knot up tons of cargo annually.

FAA agrees with airline officials

Those executives were speaking to the choir at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The agency agreed that interference from the 5G rollout could possibly have an impact on flying in low-visibility situations, not to mention affect vital airplane instruments like altimeters. 

“This means that on a day like yesterday, more than 1,100 flights and 100,000 passengers would be subjected to cancellations, diversions or delays,” the agency warned. However, it tried to mollify the airlines by saying that it "will continue to ensure that the traveling public is safe as wireless companies deploy 5G.”

The agency said it continues to work with both the aviation industry and wireless companies to try to find a solution in which 5G-related flight delays and cancellations would be limited.

The impact could also impact deliveries

Shipping giants UPS and FedEx are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with their airline industry brethren on this issue.

"The ripple effects across both passenger and cargo operations, our workforce and the broader economy are simply incalculable,” the carriers said in a letter. “To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

If Wednesday comes and there’s no resolution, consumers and businesses could also be affected. "Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies," UPS and FedEx officials concluded.

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