Airlines scramble to change schedules amid US 5G rollout concerns

Emirates Airline Boeing 777-300ERs are seen at Dubai International Airport, United Arab Emirates February 15, 2019. REUTERS/Christopher Pike/File Photo

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Jan 19 (Reuters) – Major international airlines rushed to change or cancel flights to the United States ahead of the 5G wireless rollout on Wednesday, sparking security concerns, despite two wireless carriers said they would delay parts of the rollout.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had warned that potential interference from 5G could affect height readings that play a key role in poor weather landings on some jets and airlines say the Boeing 777 is among the models initially under the projectors.

Despite AT&T and Verizon announcing that they would suspend 5G rollouts near airports, several airlines have still canceled flights or changed aircraft models.

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Late Tuesday, the FAA began updating its guidance on which airports and aircraft models would be affected, which should significantly reduce the impact of the nearly 1,500 5G restrictions notices issued by the regulator.

The world’s largest Boeing 777 operator, Dubai’s Emirates, said earlier it would suspend flights to nine US destinations from January 19, when it was due to roll out 5G wireless services.

Emirates flights to JFK in New York, Los Angeles and Washington DC will continue to operate.

Japan’s two major airlines, All Nippon Airways and Japan Airlines (9201.T), said they would reduce Boeing 777 flights. ANA said it was canceling or changing planes used on some US flights.

Korean Air Lines (003490.KS) said it had dropped 777s and 747-8s on six US passenger and cargo flights, Taiwan’s China Airlines said it would reschedule some flights and Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific Airways said it would deploy different types of aircraft if needed.

The airlines said they were acting in response to an advisory from Boeing (BA.N) that 5G signals could interfere with the 777’s radio altimeter, leading to restrictions.

A Boeing spokesperson had no immediate comment.

Last year, the 777 was the second-busiest jumbo jet on flights to and from US airports with about 210,000 flights, trailing only the 767, according to data from FlightRadar24.

Industry sources said Boeing had issued technical advisories noting potential interference, but flight restrictions were in the hands of the FAA, which for now has limited operations at key airports unless airlines are not eligible for special approvals.

Radio altimeters give accurate height above ground readings on approach and help with automated landings, as well as verifying that the jet has landed before allowing reverse thrust.

Air India, which serves four US destinations with Boeing 777s, said those flights would be scaled back or undergo aircraft type changes from Wednesday.

Singapore Airlines (SIAL.SI) said it changed aircraft used on certain US routes based on advice from Boeing and in consultation with its regulators.

WORK SPRAY

The announcement of the cancellations came despite wireless carriers delaying turning on some 5G towers near major airports.

Airline industry sources said the decision came too late to affect complex aircraft and crew decisions for some Wednesday flights.

British Airways has opted to switch planes on its daily flight to Los Angeles for an Airbus (AIR.PA) A380 on the regular Boeing 777 service, two people familiar with the matter told Reuters.

Web tracker Flightradar24 said the A350 could also be used. The radio altimeters of the two Airbus jet planes have been cleared while the aircraft manufacturer is still evaluating its other models.

The 777 mini-jumbo is a workhorse of the long-haul travel market that remains depressed after COVID-19, while its freighter counterpart has reshaped the air route map during the pandemic, according to a Flightradar24 spokesperson.

Not all 777 flights are affected. Emirates, which is also a major user of the larger A380, will switch to the larger aircraft for Los Angeles and New York but will continue to fly the 777 to Washington, which is unaffected.

Qatar Airways, which operates both 777s and A350s to the United States, said its 12 US routes were operating as planned, with minor delays expected on flights from the United States to Doha.

Israel’s El Al said its services were not affected.

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Reporting by Tim Hepher and David Shepardson, additional reporting by Jamie Freed in Sydney, Ed Copley in London, Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Lilian Wagdy and Moataz Mohamed in Cairo; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Richard Pullin

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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