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Federation of Indian Pilots raises concerns over 5G wireless signals’ potential to interfere with aviation safety

Published : Jan 04, 2022 15:08 IST T+T-
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A flight takes off from Ahmedabad Airport. A file picture.

The federation’s letter comes in the wake of the global aviation industry raising serious concerns over the potential interference of 5G signals with sensitive aircraft equipment like radio altitude meters.

The 6,000-pilot-strong Federation of Indian Pilots has written to Civil Aviation Minister Jyotiraditya M. Scindia asking that the Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) work in tandem to develop a plan that enables the safe and efficient implementation of fifth generation (5G) mobile communications networks in the C-band, the frequency band that is allocated for commercial telecommunications via satellites.

The federation’s letter, dated January 4, comes in the wake of the global aviation industry raising serious concerns over the potential interference of 5G wireless signals with sensitive aircraft equipment like radio altitude meters. The aviation industry’s apprehensions could dramatically curtail airline and general aviation operations in areas where 5G signals broadcasting is set to begin.

On December 23 the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a Safety Alert for Operators (SAFO) regarding apprehensions over the possibility of 5G signal interference with aircraft radio altimeters, following which U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg also requested U.S. phone firms to delay the rollout of 5G services. Two of the U.S’ biggest telephone service providers, AT&T and Verizon, after initially rejecting the government’s request, agreed to a two-week delay in 5G rollout.

In their letter, the Federation of Indian Pilots stated: “It is critical to fully understand and mitigate potential 5G signal interference with radio altimeters that are integral to aircraft safety systems. We understand activation of these services is scheduled to commence soon in select cities in India.”

The premier Indian pilot body cited the FAA issuance of a Special Airworthiness Information Bulletin (SAIB) on the ‘Risk of Potential Adverse Effects on Radio Altimeters’ during 5G deployment, following concern that 5G signals could interfere with the radio altimeters that airliners, bizjets and general aviation aircraft rely on for low altitude flight. The alert includes recommended action in the form of Notice to Air Missions (NOTAMs) restrictions which could dramatically curtail airline and general aviation operations in areas where 5G signals broadcasting is set to begin.

Noted the letter: “The FAA’s recent airworthiness directives (ADs) would restrict the use of approach and landing procedures during low visibility conditions. Other safety critical features such as aircraft and obstacle collision avoidance systems also depend on reliable radio altimeter performance. We at the Federation of Indian Pilots are concerned about the possible unintended consequences of not having full safety enhancement system capabilities available to pilots and about the considerable efforts to develop and communicate the mitigations to all segments of the aviation sector. These restrictions will adversely impact different aviation operations.”

While pointing out that restricting the use of safety-critical systems when in the vicinity of 5G interference, as outlined in recent FAA ADs, is not a viable long-term solution, the pilot body said that the powers that be “should always be working to improve the situational awareness of flight crews, not restricting it”. Said the federation: “5G and aviation can safely co-exist, but it is going to take a collaborative approach on the part of DGCA and TRAI, and stakeholders in the aviation and telecommunications industries, to resolve outstanding issues.”

The pilot body called for the formation of a government-industry expert panel to collaboratively develop viable and sustainable solutions for safe deployment before 5G activation. Stated the letter: “Working together, sharing and analysing data, is going to result in the best outcome. We at the Federation of Indian Pilots’ are always willing to work with the government to advance the safety of the travelling public and the industry at large.”

In December, Airbus and Boeing, the world’s two biggest plane makers, in an appeal to the U.S. government said “5G interference could adversely affect the ability of aircraft to safely operate”. Citing research by the trade group Airlines for America, the letter by the two airlines and addressed to Buttigieg said if the FAA’s 5G rules had been in effect in 2019, about 345,000 passenger flights and 5,400 cargo flights would have faced delays, diversions or cancellations.

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