The Boeing 777 aircraft is at the centre of a wave of international flight cancellations to and from the United States because of 5G safety fears. On Tuesday night, a slew of airlines were forced to cancel a raft of U.S. flights from January 19 onwards after aircraft manufacturer Boeing apparently told them it wasn’t safe to fly the 777 to certain airports where C-Band 5G was in use.
The Seattle-based airframer has so far refused to publicly reveal what it told airlines but the warning and list of restrictions was apparently so severe as to prompt an immediate and dramatic reaction from a number of prominent 777 operators.
One of the worst affected airlines is Emirates which is the world’s largest Boeing 777 operator. Late on Tuesday evening, the Dubai-based airline announced it would be indefinitely cancelling U.S.-bound flights to nine major airports including Chicago, Dallas Fort Worth and Houston.
Despite a more varied fleet and with less affected aircraft, British Airways was also forced to cancel a rash of U.S.-bound flights on Wednesday which had been scheduled on Boeing 777 aircraft.
Japenese carriers ANA and Japan Airlines both said they would cancel scheduled U.S. services because they weren’t in a position to swap the flights to the largely unaffected Boeing 787 Dreamliner model. Air India also cited the same reason after it cancelled some U.S. services on Tuesday.
The Boeing 777 uses a model of radio altimeter which has not been approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in areas where C-Band 5G is in use over fears the cellular signal could interfere with aircraft instruments. Both AT&T and Verizon switched on C-Band 5G on Wednesday despite objections from the FAA.
Although the telecom giants promised not to turn on C-Band 5G towers around some airports, the go-live still prompted the FAA to issue a tsunami of restrictions in the form of Notices to Air Mission (NOTAM’s).
One of the biggest restrictions is a ban on certain aircraft performing fully automatic landings in bad weather or poor visibility because this function is reliant on input from the radio altimeter.
Other aircraft are at potential risk but can still safely operate with precautions in place. It seems, though, that Boeing has determined the 777 is at much greater risk of radio altimeter interference from 5G signals.
This could prove to be a massive issue for airlines as the Boeing 777 is the most popular widebody aircraft every built. More than 1,600 of the twin-engined long-haul aircraft have been purchased in various passenger variants. The aircraft is also a cargo workhorse and more than 300 777F freighters have been ordered in the plane’s lifetime.
The long-delayed but much-anticipated next generation 777X has so far won 361 orders from the likes of Emirates, Singapore Airways and British Airways.
On Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg refused to set out what specific measures the U.S. government was taking to avoid further disruption to air travel but the White House thanked AT&T and Verizon for keeping some C-Band 5G towers offline.
In a statement, Buttigieg commented: “We recognize the economic importance of expanding 5G, and we appreciate the wireless companies working with us to protect the flying public and the country’s supply chain.”
“The complex U.S. airspace leads the world in safety because of our high standards for aviation, and we will maintain this commitment as wireless companies deploy 5G.”
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.