Erin Applebaum on the Risks 5G Poses to Commercial Airlines

Verizon and AT&T are in the process of rolling out 5G wireless service on a radio spectrum called the C-band in a number of major U.S. cities. 

Erin Applebaum
Kreindler & Kreindler
New York, New York

Those 5G signals, while lucrative to the telecom industry, pose catastrophic safety risks to the U.S. commercial aviation fleet.


When pilots land in poor weather conditions, they rely on the assistance of a highly-sensitive instrument called the radio altimeter. The altimeters tell the plane how far it is off the ground. 

Altimeters operate on a C-band frequency adjacent to the one used by Verizon and AT&T for their new 5G service, and aviation experts have concluded that the proximity between frequencies could cause 5G signals to interfere with the accuracy of radio altimeters. 

If the radio altimeter transmits incorrect data, consequences could be disastrous. In a worst-case scenario, an erroneous altitude reading could trigger the airplane’s automatic flight systems to reduce the airplane’s power or take other actions that could take down the airplane, killing its passengers and crew. 

That’s the take of Erin Applebaum, an aviation attorney at Kreindler & Kreindler in New York.

“5G is on a radio spectrum called the C-band,” Applebaum told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “5G service has been enacted in a number of cities already. It poses a risk to the U.S. commercial aviation fleet. The C-band is also where radio altimeters operate.”

“Radio altimeters help the planes land in low visibility conditions. They operate on a C-band frequency adjacent to the ones used by AT&T and Verizon for their 5G. Because the frequencies are in such close proximity, there is a danger that they could interfere with one another.” 

“This problem could be catastrophic. If a radio altimeter is not working in a low visibility approach, it could tell the plane that it is on the ground when it is not. Or it could tell the plane that it is farther away from the ground than it really is. And then pilots cannot safely land the aircraft. And it could potentially cause a crash and put lives at risk.”

“In 1951, Turkish Airlines Flight 1951 crashed because of a faulty altimeter. It told the plane that it was on the ground when it was still on approach. It caused the engine power to idle, the airplane stalled and it crashed on landing resulting in nine deaths.”

The altimeter tells the plane how far the plane is off the ground. Is there any instance of the 5G cell towers interfering with altimeters?

“We don’t know of any reported in the media. The only indication we have is pilots themselves giving first hand accounts that there has been interference.” 

“The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) tells us that they are taking steps to prevent this from happening. They are communicating with the manufacturers to try to figure out which radio altimeters are robust enough to prevent interference.” 

“The question is – can we trust the FAA that their analysis is going to be correct 100 percent of the time? The problem with aviation safety is that you have to be correct every single time. The pilot has to pitch a perfect game every time he straps in. There is no room for error. You can’t mess up one time because lives are at risk.”

“Instead of listening to the recommendations of the FAA and the industry, instead of focusing on the altimeter, we need to get 5G interference out of the airport perimeters.” 

And they are now currently within range of 88 airports? 

“Yes, the transmitters are within range of 88 airports in the United States.”

You would say – remove those transmitters?

“They need to be turned off. There needs to be a buffer zone around the airports free from 5G. There is a temporary buffer zone now around 50 U.S. airports, even though there are 88 airports affected. That’s the first red flag.” 

What is a buffer zone?

“The transmitter is turned off in those areas. It removes that potential for interference for a certain number of seconds before planes land at the airport. It’s a great stopgap, but it needs to be permanent.” 

“We can already see that the FAA is bending to industry by the fact that they agreed to turn off only 50 and not all 88. Industry doesn’t want any turned off. But during negotiations with the FAA, they agreed to turn off 50. But what about those other 38?”

On what basis did they choose the 50 and not the 38?

“They evaluated which airports had the highest probability of low visibility landings. Low visibility landings are when you are landing in fog or smoke. Some airports out west where they have wildfires tend to have smoky conditions. Some airports tend to have more fog than others.” 

“One airport that I noticed that was not one of the 50 was my hometown airport – Tampa International. It is concerning to me because on a personal note I fly in there quite often to visit family. What happens if there is a low visibility day and they haven’t yet checked every radio altimeter. What if something goes wrong and they haven’t put in place a buffer zone? That’s just one of 38 that are still vulnerable.”

“The FAA is not prioritizing passenger safety. If they were prioritizing the safety of everybody, they would put active buffers around all 88 of the airports in question until this issue could be worked out. Instead, as a compromise to industry, they have only enacted buffers around 50. That makes me wonder what else they are compromising about.”

Does a buffer zone mean that the 5G transmitters around airports turn off only when an airplane is landing? Or are they turned off the whole time?

“They are turned off permanently. The wireless companies don’t want that to happen. They want their 5G service enacted everywhere. It’s a big financial boon for them.”

Does that render the transmitter useless?


The companies put up these 5G transmitters around airports before getting approval from the FAA?

“Yes. But there are compromises to be had. The wireless companies just don’t want to compromise.”

“The wireless companies talk about how 5G has been enacted in Europe for years and it has not caused any issues. But what they fail to mention is that the transmitters in Europe are pointed at the ground to avoid interference with airplanes. In the United States, the transmitters are pointed straight out or up. And that increases the potential for interference. They are not willing to compromise.” 

“We are recommending that these buffer zones that they have enacted temporarily need to be permanent instead of expiring in six months.”

When you say that there are compromises to be had, are you saying that these transmitters can stay in operation as long as they are pointed downward, like in Europe?

“In Europe the power of the 5G signal is not as strong. It is on a portion of the C band that is not as close as the one that is utilized by radio altimeters. They point down. And they have permanent buffer zones around all of their airports.”

“We think the European approach is the way to go. While we can’t change the portion of the C-band where the 5G is operating, we could take those other measures to improve aviation safety.”

“It should be embarrassing to the FAA that we are playing catch up to Europe. The United States was always the gold standard in aviation safety. It seems now that we are trying to catch up with other countries. We should be leading the way.”

Where are the pilot unions in this?

“The pilot unions are in agreement that this is not a safe situation. You very rarely see manufacturers, pilots, airlines – everybody in unison saying they agree. But here, everybody agrees, this is not safe. Nobody wants to be on approach in foggy conditions and realize that their altimeter is not working properly.” 

“Pilots should know how to hand fly their airplanes. But the reality is that in conditions where they can’t see the runway, it’s not safe for them to do that.”

“European and other foreign pilots have outright refused to land here until the problem is fixed. The first day this was enacted, many flights from the Middle East and Europe were canceled because they did not want to take the risk that their planes would not be able to auto land.”

Are they still refusing to land now?

“They have begun flying here again because the altimeters in their airplanes have been cleared. That is what they were waiting for – to make sure their altimeters were robust enough to withstand potential interference. And the buffer zone is helping.” 

“Our big concern is that in six months, when the buffer zone is lifted, we will find out that mistakes were made. We certainly hope there haven’t been. But our concern is that they did not do a perfect job in analyzing every single altimeter.” 

“It’s just too risky. The buffers need to be permanent.”

[For the complete q/a format Interview with Erin Applebaum, 36 Corporate Crime Reporter 8(10), Monday February 21, 2022, print edition only]

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