By Claudia Assis and Emily Bary
AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. said Tuesday they are halting plans to launch their 5G wireless networks around U.S. airports for the moment, amid fears that the new services could interfere with aircraft technology and upend U.S. air travel.
Verizon /zigman2/quotes/204980236/composite VZ +0.14% said in a statement it decided to “limit” its 5G network around airports, without saying which airports the decision would affect. AT&T /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T +1.28% said it has decided to “temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers” around some airport runways, also without further details. The launch will proceed as planned elsewhere, the companies said.
Both companies expressed frustration with U.S. aviation regulators and airlines, with Verizon saying that the Federal Aviation Administration and U.S. air carriers “have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports,” which is “safe and fully operational” in dozens of other countries.
AT&T decried the “FAA’s inability … to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services,” and urged regulators to do it “in a timely manner.”
President Biden thanked Verizon and AT&T in a statement Tuesday, saying the agreement avoids “potentially devastating” air-travel disruptions, and vowed to continue to discuss “a path forward for 5G deployment and aviation to safely co-exist … and reach a permanent, workable solution around these key airports.”
Earlier this week, U.S. passenger and cargo air carriers, including American Airlines Group Inc. /zigman2/quotes/209207041/composite AAL +5.82% , Delta Air Lines Inc. /zigman2/quotes/200327741/composite DAL +4.91% , and United Airlines Holdings Inc. /zigman2/quotes/205037281/composite UAL +6.71% , sent a letter to the administration to warn of potential cancellations, diversions or delays, saying the new 5G service near airports could interfere with certain instruments under some conditions.
The new service could ground certain planes in low-visibility situations, meddling with low-altitude altimeters and affecting landings, Jefferies analyst Sheila Kahyaoglu said in a note to clients Tuesday.
While it is true that other countries have successfully navigated those issues, there are other “variables” at play in the U.S., including lower operating frequencies with higher buffers to the operations of those instruments, she said.
Some countries such as France deploy buffer zones around airports at certain flight times and have other requirements, she said.
The UK’s civil-aviation regulator “has said it does not believe C-Band spectrum interferes with aircraft equipment, a different initial view than the FAA,” she said.
U.S. airlines have had a rough start of the year, and are recovering from the cancellations and delays of thousands of flights in late December and early January, hobbled by the impacts of COVID-19 outbreaks and winter weather on their already stretched schedules and capacity.
Delta Air last week gave investors a first look at fourth-quarter airline earnings, reporting better-than-expected results , but investors remain worried about current-quarter bookings and performance. Other major U.S. airlines are scheduled to report within the month.
The U.S. Global Jets ETF /zigman2/quotes/207744796/composite JETS +4.58% is down around 1.3% in the past 12 months, contrasting with gains of about 22% for the S&P 500 index /zigman2/quotes/210599714/realtime SPX +1.55% in the same period.
Emily Bary in New York contributed to this report.