13:02 PM

5G tech and aviation: How the planned rollout could impact TPA

This Wednesday, Verizon and AT&T plan to enable their new 5G wireless broadband technology, which prompted the FAA earlier this month to issue a series of restriction notices to airports across the country, including Tampa International Airport. According to the FAA, radio altimeters on certain aircraft “cannot be relied upon to perform their intended function” on approach in low-visibility conditions if they experience 5G interference.

However, developments on the matter have been changing from day to day. On Tuesday – one day before the planned 5G rollout - Verizon and AT&T announced they would refrain from enabling 5G within two miles of airports, at least temporarily. 

The delay came after FAA and airlines expressed strong concerns that during certain conditions, such foggy or stormy weather, airports could experience a higher than usual number of delays, cancellations and diversions due to FAA restrictions on commercial aircraft. TPA – along with other U.S. airports and airline and airport industry groups – has been studying and following the issue closely to determine what, if any, impacts the 5G rollout and FAA restrictions may cause.

Here are some questions TPA passengers may have, and what we know so far.

How would a full 5G rollout impact passenger flights, including those at TPA specifically?

On Jan. 13, the FAA is issued NOTAMs (Notice to Air Missions) that will restrict low visibility operations at airports across the country. These NOTAMs are not issued or controlled by the Airport but are directly issued by the FAA. What this means is if a flight is approaching during  what’s considered by the FAA to be Category II or Category III low visibility operations at TPA, and assuming an aircraft operator does not have something the FAA considers “Alternate Means of Compliance” for radio/radar altimeters, airborne aircraft would likely have to divert to an alternate airport, be delayed due to actual or expected low visibility conditions at TPA, or airlines may choose to cancel flights altogether. Again, this impacts landings only, not departures.

In early 2021, TPA became the first airport in the U.S. to offer 5G technology and faster wireless speeds. Is this the same tech the FAA is concerned about?

No, TPA’s 5G distributed antenna system does not operate within the C-Band spectrum. It is believed there are possibly cell towers off property within the arrival flight corridor that may operate within the C-Band spectrum and are largely the reasons why TPA is subject to the FAA’s limitations on low visibility operations.

How many impacted aircraft are we talking here?

Low visibility operations at TPA typically occur approximately 20 days within a year and the total time in low visibility operations is generally less than 30 hours a year. The time of year where low visibility operations occur most often are between December and February, and the majority of low visibility operations take place late night/early morning and do not affect the majority of operations at TPA

To further put it into context, from December 2020 through December 2021, TPA was in CAT II or CAT III low visibility conditions nine times for 27 hours, which equates to 0.04 percent of the entire year. During these Category II and Category III conditions, 166 aircraft landed during those times, equating to 0.18 percent of all arrivals over the past 12 months. Of those 166 arrivals, 119 of those were commercial flights, 16 were air cargo operations and 31 were general aviation aircraft.

That doesn’t sound like very many flights at TPA would be impacted. What’s TPA biggest concern?

Along with TPA’s flight arrivals being impacted during low visibility conditions, the Airport could also see an uptick in diverted aircraft coming to TPA from other airports in our region when those airports have low visibility operations. Also, commuting airline crew members attempting to transit to hubs for their trips could be adversely affected by delays and cancellations in other parts of the country, further driving system delays and cancellations at airports everywhere, including at TPA.

What is TPA doing about this issue?

TPA has been preparing and will continue to prepare for to additional diversions, delays, and cancellations, ahead of the potential impacts caused by the FAA restrictions after the 5G rollout. These preparations include coordination with the National Weather Service on fog forecasts at commercial airports across the state for daily operational planning, maintaining additional gates open during late night and early morning periods for potential diversions and plans to notify the public in the event of a large number of cancelations and delays.

TPA was one of four airports invited to participate in a national tabletop exercise, held by the FAA on January 3, to exercise the potential impacts and domino effects of the proposed limitation on low visibility flight operations stemming from the 5G rollout issue. The situation is complex and evolving daily, and TPA will continue to stay involved at the national level, as well as remaining in close contact with its airport and aviation industry groups and the congressional delegation on the matter.