The U.S. travel industry has been experiencing one of its highest-demand periods ever, and while disruptions have been limited, save for a few weather-related events, that could change soon.
In a new interview with the Wall Street Journal, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that there is a “real risk of delays or cancellations” because of a lack of compliance with the upcoming July 1 deadline for aircraft to be compliant with new 5G rules.
“This represents one of the biggest—probably the biggest—foreseeable problem affecting performance this summer,” Buttigieg said in the interview.
Airlines were required to retrofit their aircraft equipment ahead of the July 1 deadline, a date when U.S. wireless companies will boost their 5G service to higher power levels, which could cause some potential interference. Aircraft that aren’t updated will not be allowed to land in certain weather conditions after that deadline.
The size of the impact depends on two factors—the percentage of airlines that were able to retrofit their aircraft and the potential of bad weather. Some airlines, according to the WSJ, said that they don’t expect to have issues as either they have already updated equipment or are ready to plan around restrictions on aircraft that haven’t been updated. United Airlines, for example, said all of its mainline planes are ready.
Still, some may, including Delta Air Lines, which told the WSJ that supply-chain roadblocks have made it difficult to update its entire fleet by July 1, and JetBlue, which said that it will have its fleet completely updated by October and may see a “limited impact” on low-visibility days until then.
Other international carriers, including Air India, have promised to only use 5G-compliant aircraft when flying into the U.S.
According to Buttigieg, around 20% of domestic planes and 35% of international ones which fly to the US aren't yet up-to-date.
The issue first came up back in January 2022, just as the industry was climbing out of its post-COVID dip, Roger Down, the then CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, called for a delay to the 5G rollout around airports because of potential interference.
According to a letter from Airlines for America as reported by Reuters at the time, the problem comes from potential interference from 5G that could impact some flying instruments, specifically aircraft radio altimeters, and make navigating low-visibility environments more dangerous for pilots, especially if it is rolled-out near major airports.
“The implementation of 5G around affected airports threatens to disrupt domestic and international air travel, delay thousands of passengers, and cause unnecessary economic harm to the nation and the entire travel industry – not just airlines,” Dow said.
Airlines would eventually agree to delay rollout, but now, a year-and-a-half later, the deadline is rapidly approaching.