US senators seek details on airplane 5G retrofit plans ahead of deadline

Commercial aircraft lands past cell phone tower in California

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Two U.S. senators on Wednesday asked U.S. officials to detail which airlines are in jeopardy of not meeting deadlines to retrofit planes to avoid potential 5G wireless interference.

Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn and Democratic Senator Ben Ray Lujan cited a Reuters story that said many airlines will be unable to meet looming U.S. deadlines after the world's biggest airline trade body warned the issue could impact the summer international travel season.

"We are concerned that airlines that do not meet the retrofit deadlines could negatively impact consumers - both due to flight cancellations or delays and by impeding access to needed connectivity," the senators wrote to acting Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) head Billy Nolen and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and asking for details on which specific airlines could be impacted.

Nolen told Blackburn at a hearing Wednesday "we have identified a risk to the (national airspace) -- one that must be addressed. We believe we have given the right amount of time to do that and so we have no plans at this point to change the timing."

International Air Transport Association (IATA) Director General Willie Walsh said "many operators will not make the proposed July 2023 (and in some cases the March 2023) retrofit deadline owing to supply chain issues, certification delays, and unavoidable logistical challenges."

The FAA in January proposed requiring passenger and cargo aircraft in the United States have 5G C-Band-tolerant radio altimeters or approved filters by early 2024.

Concerns 5G service could interfere with airplane altimeters, which give data on a plane's height above the ground and are crucial for bad-weather landing, led to disruptions at some U.S. airports last year involving international carriers.

Verizon and AT&T in June voluntarily agreed to delay some C-Band 5G usage until July 1 as air carriers work to retrofit airplanes to ensure that they will not face interference.

The FAA is also proposing a requirement that airlines revise airplane flight manuals to prohibit low-visibility landings after June 30 unless retrofits have been completed.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Diane Craft)