Here's why 5G is so concerning for U.S. airlines, and what Canada has done to fix it

Published Jan. 18, 2022 6:34 p.m. ET
Updated Jan. 19, 2022 12:53 p.m. ET

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The emergence of 5G technology has raised some red flags for airlines in the United States.

The cellphone technology, capable of producing laser-fast mobile internet speeds, can interfere with some sensitive aircraft technology, which the airlines worry could produce severe disruptions or even crashes. While most aircraft technology is unaffected, 5G can disrupt an aircraft’s radio altimeter, which indicates how high a plane is in the air relative to the Earth below. The radio altimeter is also used in automated landings.

Radio altimeters operate at frequencies close to the new C band 5G wireless, set to launch in the U.S. on Wednesday. Disruptions to this technology -- in a worst-case scenario – can lead to runway crashes or collisions with mountains. More realistically, any bad weather could cause significant delays as pilots would need to conduct visual landings without the help of the radio altimeter.

These networks also have the potential to disrupt helicopters and air ambulance services, along with some military and police operations, according to Canada’s Department of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development (ISED).

U.S. airlines have been adamant that Verizon and AT&T – the two major 5G carriers in the U.S. -- should slow down the launch of the new service surrounding the country’s airports, warning that thousands of planes may be grounded or delayed if the rollout continues.

“Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies. The harm that will result from deployment on January 19 is substantially worse than we originally anticipated,” Airlines for America, which represents eight major U.S. airlines and two major shipping companies, wrote in an open letter on Monday.

“The ripple effects across both passenger and cargo operations, our workforce and the broader economy are simply incalculable. Every one of the passenger and cargo carriers will be struggling to get people, shipments, planes and crews where they need to be. To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

Airlines for America has asked that 5G service be halted in the two miles surrounding 50 of the U.S. top airports. On Tuesday, AT&T and Verizon announced it would postpone the launch of 5G service near some U.S. airports for six months and would work with regulators and the aviation industry to come up with a solution, but are moving forward with their launch everywhere else on Jan. 19.


While the U.S. is launching its 5G this week, Canadian companies have offered 5G to customers since early 2020 and airline disruption has not been a major concern. But why?

The answer is two-fold: Canada doesn’t offer 5G networks at the frequency the U.S. is set to launch, and Canada has already taken several measures to help keep airlines safe.

While the U.S. is about to launch 5G in the 4.2 to 4.4 GHz range, Canada’s latest spectrum auction was only for frequencies of up to 3.7 GHz, which doesn’t come as close to the range that would interfere with airplane technology.

Some 40 countries have already launched 5G, but the U.S. is among the few to launch in the higher range. The European Union set standards for up to 3.8 GHz in 2019, for example.

Additionally, Canada has already addressed concerns regarding 5G’s impact on aircraft.

In Nov. 2021, the ISED restricted 5G services by creating “exclusion zones” in the areas surrounding Canadian airports and required that 5G antennas be tilted downward to avoid interference with aircraft. 

“ISED and Transport Canada are working with both the telecommunications and aviation industries to ensure that appropriate rules are in place to protect the critical operations of radio altimeters,” a spokesperson for Transport Canada wrote in an email to

“These technical rules are designed to ensure that 5G is deployed in a manner that minimizes the potential for interference to radio altimeters.”

Additionally, Transport Canada has issued several recommendations for all pilots who use radio altimeters, including to avoid the use of automated landing or takeoff procedures in areas not covered in these exclusion zones and to avoid the use of night vision goggles without external lighting to avoid relying on the radio altimeter.

Transport Canada also suggests that all 5G-connected devices need to either turned off or set to airplane mode and only 3G or 4G networks should be used in the event of an emergency.

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters


This story was updated to clarify the aircraft apparatus affected is a radio altimeter.

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