Aircraft Manufacturers Need Better Accountability

I realize I’m stepping way out of my bounds on this one. I’m neither a telecommunications expert nor an aviation technology expert. That, by definition, makes me more of an “armchair expert”, however observant I feel I am. However, nothing I’m reading anywhere suggests that this topic has been resolved in any reasonable way, either.

The topic? US airlines warn of “chaos” as telecoms groups roll out 5G. You know, that same 5G that was supposed to revolutionize our mobile communications, that Apple raved all over with the iPhone 13 launch? The same 5G we’re all supposed to have gotten with our COVID vaccinations (I’m still ticked my signal is for crap, such a rip-off rumour). Well, the American airlines have utterly freaked a couple of days before it’s supposed to switched on.

The problem, it seems, is that the American 5G systems are slightly different than the European ones (the same was true of GSM, back in the day), notaby in the 5G frequencies that they use, but also (apparently) US systems have more power (and therefore, range/ability to overpower other systems). And, somehow, we’ve gotten to the 11th Hour before someone cried Wolf.

5G is not new. The 5G technology was first documented in July 2016, with the first radio specification available in 2017. By April 2019, 224 operators in 88 countries that were assessing 5G technologies; South Korea went one step further and rolled it out. So by the end of 2019 – before the pandemic rolled over the planet and shut down most of our logical thought – we had at least one country with a large population, 5G tech, and a large volume of international flights, not to mention a litany of other test results that should have identified possible issues.

Now, if I were a manufacturer of avionics equipment, I’d probably be one of those types who wants to know at what point the equipment fails: vibration, temperature, air pressure, electrical and magnetic fields, and radio interference. Because knowing exactly when and how equipment fails helps me understand where weaknesses are (and maybe fix them), or at the very least let my customers know the safe zones for operation. And, one would think, that radio interference would include all kinds of things, like television (even if over-the-air is now mostly gone), all the various radio bands, and maybe even on the extreme ends where you’re getting into radar and microwave technology. Y’know, cover your bases.

It’s not like mobile phones are a new thing. How many years, now, have we been asked to “please turn off your mobile phone” when getting on a plane? Whatever the real reason is for turning off mobile phones on planes, the point is that it’s been a known issue for a long time. So having more and more powerful phones accessing more and more powerful networks isn’t just old news, it’s the kind of a prediction an incompetent prophet could make with accuracy.

Okay, so let’s delay the 5G rollout in the US… wait… how many billions are locked up in this? Ah, well, then … um, well, we’re a pandemic, right, so let’s just ground the airlines until this matter is… wait… all the cargo flights that would halt over 55,000 metric tonnes moving around the US alone per day?

Well. This sucks.

But why the red flag is only being waved now? Why on Earth would the airlines suddenly panic? Although I can’t actually tell for sure, I’m wonder if this is a result of airline deregulation, which has absolutely never caused a single problem. Though I wouldn’t put it as a direct result, more like a consequence: airlines try to do the minimum amount of work on the physical parts of their business (the planes) so they can maximize profits elsewhere, which means that avionics don’t get upgraded (as often as they should), and they certainly don’t read up as frequently as they should on changes in other industries that don’t affect theirs (like, say, mobile telecommunications).

And I think it’s also ego, being “too big to fail” – if you take down the US airline industry, the US falls apart (because a substantial amount of our just-in-time logistics require air travel). And they’ve found out that they’re not the only big fish in the sea.

In either case, this isn’t about the 5G operators rolling out the door, it’s the airlines who aren’t ready. But is anyone holding them to task? Anyone pointing the finger that says: “Hey, no, this is your problem to solve, you’d better figure it out quick.” Clearly other countries and airlines have this under control, so it’s only the US airlines (and I presume, Canada by extension) who have a problem. Someone needs to hold them to task and get this sorted out.

Hopefully they figure it out quickly. In the meantime, though, keep a weather eye on the skies…