News release: Airline cancellations could skyrocket July 1 as 5G technology thwarts some landings

Media Contacts

WASHINGTON – The week before the big July 4 holiday weekend is not off to a good start for air travel. Storms across major swaths of the country and staffing issues at airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have led to more than 20,000 cancellations and delays in the United States so far this last week of June.

The problem could get worse this weekend with the combination of a busy holiday weekend and the rollout of new cellphone technology that could disrupt some flights. Wireless carriers can boost their 5G signals on July 1. But this could interfere with planes with older altimeters, the equipment they need to determine how far they are from the ground and land safely, particularly when there’s bad weather or low visibility.

In a letter to the airline industry’s trade association last week, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said that up to 20% of planes serving U.S. airports don’t yet have updated equipment. That could mean increases in cancellations and delays, particularly if storms pop up and pilots need to reroute flights.

“This is not what we want to hear going into a big holiday weekend,” said Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog at U.S. PIRG Education Fund. “People planning to travel this weekend should take steps now to protect themselves, including learning about their rights, putting trackers in their bags, getting their airline’s app on their phone so they can receive real-time notifications and saving the DOT link that spells out their airline’s guarantees in case of cancellations or delays.

AAA expects a 4.2 million Americans to travel by air this weekend, an 11% increase over last year and an Independence Day record. 

Among the largest U.S. airlines, American, Southwest and Frontier have said they’re on track with retrofitted altimeters, United didn’t indicate whether its regional partners will be ready and Delta has said about 190 of its 900-plus planes won’t have updated altimeters by July 1 and that could affect scheduling. Many smaller airlines and international airlines also could have issues.

On Monday and Tuesday alone, nearly 4,500 flights in the United States were canceled, and more than 16,000 were delayed, according to FlightAware. Among the 10 largest airlines, United and JetBlue had the highest percentages of cancellations. The delays included 27% to 40% of flights with the big four airlines on Monday and 24% to 42% of flights on Tuesday. United was hit hardest; its CEO cited FAA staffing in Newark, one of United’s busiest hubs. The FAA didn’t deny it, responding only, “We will always collaborate with anyone seriously willing to join us to solve a problem.”

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