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‘5G and airline safety can co-exist,’ former FAA administrator says

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Former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta joins Yahoo Finance Live to discuss 5G expansions, safety concerns over flight control interference, and airport infrastructure.

Video Transcript

EMILY MCCORMICK: AT&T and Verizon said this afternoon that they would hold off on rolling out new 5G service near some airports just hours before a temporary delay on this expansion was set to expire. Leading up to this, top executives at major US airlines have warned of major disruptions to travel and shipping operations due to interference between the new c-band 5G service and Airwaves used by planes' own devices.

For more, we have former FAA Administrator Michael Huerta joining us now. Michael, thank you so much for your time this afternoon. With this renewed delay from the telecoms, do you think that these companies and airlines will be able to come to an agreement that ultimately allows for this rollout while maintaining the safety of airline travel and cargo operations?

MICHAEL HUERTA: Well, thanks very much for having me. Yes, I do think that there is a solution here. What it really requires is collaborative work on the part of the regulators-- the FAA and the FCC-- in order to ensure that information is being shared on where towers are located, the power levels, and what interference might exist which would affect safe aviation. There is a solution here, it just requires everyone working together.

The announcement by the telecom companies today was a very positive sign. And I think that everyone now has to focus on getting the work done so that 5G can coexist with safe airline flights.

ADAM SHAPIRO: Is that solution-- because as we understand it now, they're going to not power up the towers within a two-mile radius of some of the designated big airports-- is that just the way it's going to be forever more? Or are they going to have to replace equipment aboard aircraft over how many years it might take that eventually those towers can be powered up?

MICHAEL HUERTA: I think it's going to be a combination of both. I think that what it will-- it'll be very airport-specific. One of the things that has to take place, as has happened in other countries, is really detailed analysis of where towers are located, how they're pointed, what their power levels are, and how that might interact with the critical systems in airports. And that's what has not taken place here and that's what really needs to take place.

To a certain extent, I think the telecom companies and the airlines are kind of caught in the middle here. This is something that requires a great deal of collaboration at the governmental level. And I'm very pleased to see the announcement today from the telecom companies. Now, everyone needs to really focus on addressing these issues.

EMILY MCCORMICK: Is it possible, in your view, to have this 5G rollout take place with no disruptions to current passenger and cargo flight plans? Or is there inevitably going to be some rerouting, some rescheduling that's going to happen as this rollout continues?

MICHAEL HUERTA: Well, like many things, it depends on weather. The systems that are most affected or what are called radio altimeters. This is a piece of equipment on board aircraft that enables pilots to know where they are relative to the ground in low visibility conditions. And so this is absolutely a very critical safety system that's on board aircraft and something that, you know, pilots rely on to ensure safe flight.

Depending on where you are and where towers are located, there may or may not be impacts. But I do think that today's announcement actually mitigates it a great deal. Does it eliminate any potential for conflict? Probably not.

But what we all have to do is really focus on the critical airport infrastructure and the systems on board aircraft. I think over time, the solution will be a gradual, continued refresh of technology systems aboard aircraft. But it is perfectly reasonable to assume that 5G and airline safety can coexist.

ADAM SHAPIRO: What confidence do you have, if the regulators are the ones who are going to have to figure out how we do all of this for both sides, the FAA, the FCC, the federal government, they auctioned off the c-band spectrums. And it started back during the Trump administration. We knew this was coming. Where were the regulators? Why weren't they working this out over the last three or four years?

MICHAEL HUERTA: Well, I can't answer that question. The airlines' concerns and the aviation industry's concerns were well known before the spectrum auction. And as I understand it, the telecoms were under the impression that the spectrum was free of interference. You know, clearly, some communication that needed to take place then did not take place.

Now, we are where we are. And I think that it's important that details be provided about where towers are located, what their power levels are, what direction antennas are pointed. And the OEMs, the manufacturers, and the airlines need to have clarity on how these systems might interact with their system's on-board aircraft.

From an airline standpoint, if the FAA identifies a hazard, they have to respond to it. And the responsible thing for them is to take a very cautious position. And that's why this really requires the government regulators to play a leadership role in working out what is safe.

EMILY MCCORMICK: All right, Michael Huerta is former FAA administrator, and we thank you so much for your time this afternoon.