Limited 5G rollout eases flight concerns, but new wireless service near O'Hare is another matter

Airlines on Wednesday welcomed Verizon and AT&T's decision to delay debuting faster 5G wireless service near airports like O'Hare and Midway because of safety questions, but turbulence continues over the rollout.

Carriers had warned of massive flight disruptions if their concerns about whether the new wireless system could interfere with radar equipment weren't resolved. That prompted Verizon and AT&T on Tuesday to defer turning on cell towers within 2 miles of 50 affected airports - one day before the nationwide launch.

Now, "we're pleased the Biden Administration reached a compromise with AT&T and Verizon to avoid mass cancellations across the aviation industry," United Airlines said in a statement. "We look forward to a higher level of coordination between the regulators, telecom companies and the aviation industry to ensure that customers are not faced with disruptions going forward."

Also, "as a result of the telecommunications industry implementing a pause in 5G expansion near U.S. airports, we do not anticipate significant operational disruptions this week," a Southwest Airlines spokesman said.

And, American Airlines Chief Operating Officer David Seymour told employees that "with that relief, we move closer to returning to normal operations."

But as the federal government, telecommunications giants and airlines work on the process, it will mean some residents near O'Hare and Midway international airports will go without the speedier service for now.

One town that borders O'Hare, Elk Grove Village, has put a major emphasis on 5G connectivity since announcing a business initiative in fall 2019 to establish the service throughout its sprawling industrial park and residential areas.

Mayor Craig Johnson said Wednesday he doesn't foresee any significant delays in the local implementation of 5G throughout the village, which already has some of the equipment attached to light poles.

"Obviously safety comes first," Johnson said. "... They're giving extra time to make sure everything is good, but I imagine in a few weeks it's all going to be resolved."

Negotiations over 5G deployment have been going on for years, but disagreements about safety came to a head in 2021. 5G uses frequencies similar to those used by radar altimeters on planes, raising the issue of interference, according to the Federal Aviation Administration. Altimeters provide information about an aircraft's height that's used for navigation and landings when visibility is low.

In December, the FAA said flight restrictions could occur at some airports where 5G interference was possible.

On Monday, United warned the government's rollout plan "will have a devastating impact on aviation, negatively affecting an estimated 1.25 million United passengers, at least 15,000 flights and much-needed goods and tons of cargo."

AT&T responded in a statement Tuesday. "At our sole discretion we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they've had to responsibly plan for this deployment," it said.

The FAA took an upbeat tone Wednesday, noting it had issued approvals "that allow an estimated 62% of the U.S. commercial fleet to perform low-visibility landings at airports" affected by 5G.

• Daily Herald staff writer Christopher Placek contributed to this report.

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  Airlines say they no longer expect major delays at O'Hare International Airport and elsewhere across the country after Verizon and AT&T agreed to delay the rollout of 5G service near 50 airports. Brian Hill/
  Planes take off Wednesday from O'Hare International Airport. The airline industry breathed a sigh of relief after Verizon and AT&T agreed to delay the rollout of 5G service near 50 airports nationwide, easing concerns it would interfere with navigation systems. Brian Hill/