WASHINGTON (CBS News) — It’s going to be a busy week at the nation’s airport as Christmas comes during rising cases of COVID. But the pandemic isn’t the only big concern for airlines.
A technological and bureaucratic conflict could force them to cancel many flights in 2022.
A standoff between two federal agencies could have flight-halting consequences for airlines caught in the middle.
Starting Jan. 5, U.S. airlines may have to stop using equipment that helps pilots land in bad weather or low visibility following an FAA order prompted by concerns about possible interference from newly activated 5G cellphone towers.
That technology is used at more than 40 of the nation’s busiest airports.
“5G is now the biggest issue facing the airline. It’s remarkable to say in a world where we’re still in COVID,” said Scott Kirby of United Airlines.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby says the airlines have no choice but to adhere to the FAA order.
“If we go back to decades-old procedures and technology for flying airplanes, cancel thousands of flights per day, hundreds of thousands of customers, it will be a catastrophic failure of government,” Kirby said.
The wireless industry insists there is no safety issue.
“The aviation industry’s fearmongering relies on completely discredited information and deliberate distortions of fact,” the industry said.
AT&T and Verizon are pledging to reduce signal strength on cell towers near airports.
“We have 39 countries with this deployment there have been no issues,” said Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee.
In a statement, the FAA says it “believes the expansion of 5G an aviation will safely co-exist” adding to the statement saying it “is working closely with the Federal Communications Commissions and wireless companies.”
The FAA tells CBS News it “remains optimistic” the remaining issues will be solved.
The wireless industry has paid more than $80 billion to acquire the bandwidth to roll out 5G and opposes a delay.
But the airlines say without a solution, those flights will have to be delayed and canceled. It could impact an estimated 32 million flyers next year.