On January 11, 2023, the FAA posted a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) asking for comments on its proposed solution to the ongoing problem of 5G interference with aircraft radio  altimeters.  The NPRM’s comment period has just closed, and the aviation industry does not have a very favorable opinion of the proposed solution. 

As we all know, the rollout of 5G has caused a great deal of turbulence for aviation.  Concerns that 5G interference would impact safety led to the adoption of a number of temporary measures to mitigate the problem.  These included a voluntary agreement from wireless carriers to lower 5G signal strength in proximity to airports, and an effort to replace affected altimeters.  The FAA’s voluntary agreement with the carriers is set to expire in July 2023.  However, the remaining altimeters will not be replaced until at least the beginning of 2024. 

The NPRM  proposes that all carriers operating affected aircraft revise their flight manuals prior to June 2023, limiting a number of procedures, including instrument landing systems instrument approach procedures and automatic landing operations, at airports where there may be 5G interference.  The NPRM also requires all affected aircraft to be refitted with new altimeters by February 1, 2024.  The FAA estimates the cost of complying with the NPRM to be $26 million. 

A fourteen-member aviation industry coalition, which includes Boeing, Airbus, Garmin, Air Line Pilots Association, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, Aircraft Electronics Association, Airlines For America, General Aviation Manufacturers Association, Helicopter Association International, International Air Transport Association and the National Business Aviation Association, recently filed comments taking issue with the NPRM. 

First, the industry group noted that, while the proposed flight manual changes in the NPRM address the safety issue for Part 121 carriers, many Part 91, 125 and 135 operators will also face these interference problems.  As a result, the NPRM does not represent a comprehensive solution to make the entire aviation system safe.  The group also argued that the NPRM does not adequately define what constitutes a “radio altimeter tolerant airplane” for compliance purposes, and seeks a better technical standard from the FAA.  The coalition also argued that the NPRM improperly passes responsibility for preserving the safety of the NAS from the FAA to individual operators, and that a more comprehensive approach to the issue is needed.

In addition to safety concerns, the aviation industry has expressed concerns over the FAA’s proposed timeline and the costs of compliance.  For example, IATA recently wrote to the Department of Transportation expressing doubt that all aircraft can be retrofitted by the deadline due to supply chain issues.  Groups have also criticized the FAA’s estimated compliance cost as far too low, with the actual cost to industry being as high as $637 million.       

Now that this phase of the rulemaking is complete, the FAA will analyze the comments received and make changes to the proposed rule as it deems appropriate.  However, given how close we are to the end of the agreements with the 5G carriers, the FAA won’t be scrapping the NPRM and starting over with a new approach.