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British Airways cancels US flights over 5G safety fears

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A British Airways Boeing 777 - Nick Morrish/Seven Squared
A British Airways Boeing 777 - Nick Morrish/Seven Squared

British Airways is cancelling flights to America over concerns signals from 5G mobile phone masts could endanger the lives of passengers.

The UK flag carrier said it had grounded “a handful” of Boeing 777 services after it emerged that 5G signals could interfere with radio altimeters, the cockpit instrument that measures aircraft height.

Altimeters are a crucial piece of equipment that allow pilots to take-off and land in poor visibility. If not functioning properly, pilots would be left effectively flying blind in bad weather.

President Biden has sought to head off a crisis by persuading US mobile operators Verizon and AT&T to delay the rollout of 5G services “around key airports”.

As British Airways flies to a large number of airports in the US, not all of the airline’s destinations are captured by the delay.

This led to some passengers travelling to airports only to be told that their flights have been cancelled or changed.

A BA spokesman said: “Safety is always our priority and although we had to cancel a handful of services, we’ve done everything we can to minimise inconvenience for our customers. We’ve changed the aircraft operating some of our flights and rebooked those on cancelled services onto alternatives.

“We’re disappointed that, like other airlines, some of our customers’ travel plans have been disrupted.”

American 5G networks operate on a radio frequency close to those used by aircraft altimeters. In the UK and Europe, 5G uses a lower frequency less likely to interfere with cockpit instruments.

Tim Clark
Tim Clark

The British boss of Middle East carrier Emirates launched a stinging attack on the White House over its handling of the situation and the decision to continue with the rollout of 5G. Emirates has cancelled flights to nine US cities.

Sir Tim Clark said: "I need to be as candid as I normally am, and say this is one of the most delinquent, utterly irresponsible issues, subjects I've seen in my aviation career because it involves organs of government.

“The notion that, for instance, the United States government should sell its franchise for all frequencies for a large amount of money.

“Somebody should have told them at the time - that the risks and the dangers they placed in certain frequency uses around airfields, metropolitan fields that should have been done at the time.”

Other airlines that had previously cancelled flights prepared to start services to the US again. Japan Airlines and ANA said they would resume Boeing 777 service to the United States on Thursday.

Both airlines said they had been told by the Federal Aviation Administration there was no safety issue because of the precautions agreed by the White House.

Other airlines affected included Germany’s Lufthansa and Air India. Air France and Qatar Airways said their services had not been affected.

The Verizon chief executive, Hans Vestberg, said the ban on 5G masts near some US airports would have little impact on the launch of services.

“In a very small portion of our network, we’re not turning on some radios close to airports. That has been sort of our discussion with the airline industry to see that we're having a safe flight and so they have time to go through the technology, and the frequencies and all of that. And that they’re doing. And I’m confident that this is going to go fast,” he told CNBC.