A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737-700 is seen at Miami International Airport on in Miami Fla., on Saturday, November 6, 2021.
Greg Nash

Lawmakers went after federal agencies on Thursday over the tumultuous rollout of 5G technology earlier this year, accusing officials of creating a crisis by failing to communicate over aviation safety concerns.

Members of the House aviation subcommittee questioned the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) along with airline and wireless executives about the lead-up to the 5G standoff, which resulted in delayed rollout of the technology in January.

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, criticized the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for approving the sale of C-band spectrum to telecoms last year without taking input from FAA officials who have been warning of potential disruptions as far back as 2015.

“It’s a pattern of ignoring consequences beyond the consequences to the profitability of the telecom industry, that’s their only focus,” DeFazio said of the FCC, whose chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel was invited to the hearing but did not attend, citing a scheduling conflict.

“Having a dropped call is way less serious than having a dropped airline out of the sky,” DeFazio added.

Committee members and airline officials said the situation is still not resolved and urged regulators to develop a permanent solution that allows for 5G to be widely instituted without risking passenger safety.

Airlines and FAA officials have warned that 5G C-Band can interfere with some airplanes’ radio altimeters that depict how far a plane is off the ground. The FAA grounded certain planes just before 5G was activated last month and has since approved 90 percent of commercial aircraft for low-visibility landings at airports with 5G.

Lawmakers questioned why the FCC and FAA failed to coordinate in the years leading up to 5G deployment. 

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), the aviation subcommittee’s ranking member, blasted agencies for “playing chicken with each other,” calling the interagency standoff “embarrassing, ridiculous and inexcusable.”

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told lawmakers that the FCC was slow to deliver data about how 5G C-Band interacts with airplane instruments. 

“As it turns out, the FCC didn’t even have the data that we needed,” Dickson said. “We discovered that when we started to work directly with the telecommunications companies. They never had to provide this to the government.”

Dickson said that the FAA is working to develop new standards that will require airlines to upgrade or replace older airplane instruments that are disrupted by 5G signals. 

Last month, airlines warned that 5G deployment would force large numbers of airplanes to be grounded for safety reasons, potentially causing widespread delays and cancellations. At the last minute, wireless companies agreed to delay the deployment of 5G towers near certain airports for six months and share more data about their towers, a move that officials say prevented a full-blown crisis but should have been done much earlier.

Airline officials testified Thursday that new restrictions need to be placed on nearby 5G towers before they go online and noted that 5G-related FAA restrictions are causing disruptions, particularly for smaller, regional airports. 

Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airline Association, told lawmakers that FAA exemptions have gone mostly to larger airplanes, and restrictions still apply to aircraft that make more than 130,000 monthly flights and are the only source of air service to 27 airports.

“Not knowing longterm what aircraft can fly where and under what conditions is a serious problem for an industry that requires certainty for scheduling and planning,” said Cathryn Stephens, airport director of Oregon’s Eugene Airport.

Tags 5G Airlines FAA FCC Federal Aviation Administration federal communications commission Garret Graves Jessica Rosenworcel Peter DeFazio

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