The president of Emirates tells CNN that the airline was not aware of some of the potential 5G rollout issues until yesterday morning, calling the situation “one of the most delinquent, utterly irresponsible” he has seen in his aviation career.
Major international airlines are scrambling to modify or cancel flights to the United States amid uncertainty about potential interference between new 5G cell phone services and critical airplane technologies. Emirates has canceled flights to nine US destinations today.
Speaking to CNN’s Richard Quest today, Emirates president Tim Clark said that they were not aware of the issues until yesterday morning “to the extent that it was going to compromise the safety of operation of our aircraft and just about every other 777 operator to and from the United States and within the United States.”
Transportation regulators had already been concerned that the version of 5G that was scheduled to be switched on could interfere with some airplane instruments, and many aviation industry groups shared those fears — despite reassurances from federal telecom regulators and wireless carriers.
Specifically, the Federal Aviation Administration has been worried that 5G cellular antennas near some airports — not air travelers’ mobile devices — could throw off readings from some aircraft equipment designed to tell pilots how far they are from the ground. Those systems, known as radar altimeters, are used throughout a flight and are considered critical equipment. (Radar altimeters differ from standard altimeters, which rely on air pressure readings and do not use radio signals to gauge altitude.)
In December, the FAA issued an urgent order forbidding pilots from using the potentially affected altimeters around airports where low-visibility conditions would otherwise require them. That new rule could keep planes from getting to some airports in certain circumstances, because pilots would be unable to land using instruments alone.
“We were aware of a 5G issue. Okay. We are aware that everybody is trying to get 5G rolled out after all it’s the super cool future of whatever it may be communication and information flow. We were not aware that the power of the antennas in the United States have been doubled compared to what’s going on elsewhere. We were not aware that the antenna themselves have been put into a vertical position rather than a slight slanting position, which then taken together compromise not only the radio altimeter systems but the flight control systems on the fly by wire aircraft. So on that basis we took that decision late last night to suspend all our services until we had clarity,” he added, telling Richard Quest the airline wouldn’t take any risks.
When asked on what he makes of the situation, Clark said: “I need to be as candid as I normally am, and say this is one of the most delinquent, utterly irresponsible issue subjects, call it what you like, I’ve seen in my aviation career because it involves organs of government, manufacturers, science, etc. And you know, the notion that, for instance, the United States government should sell its franchise for all the frequencies for a large amount of money. Somebody should have told them at the time - that the risks and the dangers they placed in certain frequency uses around field, airfields, metropolitan fields that should have been done at the time.”
The Emirates president added that services will be restored if the rollout is suspended and the question of interference of their aircraft systems on approach and landing is removed.
AT&T, which owns CNN’s parent company, and Verizon both announced Tuesday that they would delay activating 5G on some towers around certain airports. The wireless technology’s rollout near major airports had been scheduled for Wednesday.
“We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner,” Megan Ketterer, a spokesperson for AT&T, said.
The Biden administration welcomed the delay, saying in a statement that the “agreement will avoid potentially devastating disruptions to passenger travel, cargo operations, and our economic recovery, while allowing more than 90% of wireless tower deployment to occur as scheduled.”
CNN’s Brian Fung contributed to this report.