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After several turbulent days, flight disruptions ease despite worries about 5G signals

NEW YORK (AP) – Airline passengers who have endured tens of thousands of weather-related flight delays this week got a welcome respite from the headaches Saturday, despite concerns about possible disruptions caused by new wireless 5G systems rolling out near major airports.

The number of flight delays and cancellations declined from the spikes recorded earlier in the week, according to data compiled by tracking service FlightAware. As of 9pm EST, there had been 836 flight cancellations and more than 27,300 delayed flights Saturday. During the June 28-30 period, an average of 1,751 flights were canceled and more then 32,600 flights delayed, according to the FlightAware data.

The cancellation rate worked out to about one per cent in the US as of Saturday afternoon, according to Flightradar24, another tracking service. Flightradar24 spokesperson Ian Petchenik described Saturday’s conditions as “smooth sailing” in an email to The Associated Press, while adding inclement weather could cause problems at East Coast airports later in the day.

The US Federal Aviation Administration also advised travelers that bad weather conditions on the East Coast could affect flights later Saturday.

Heading into Saturday, one of the biggest concerns had been whether 5G signals would interfere with aircraft equipment, especially devices using radio waves to measure distance above the ground that are critical when planes land in low visibility.

Predictions that interference would cause massive flight groundings failed to come true last year, when telecom companies began rolling out the new service. They then agreed to limit the power of the signals around busy airports, giving airlines an extra year to upgrade their planes.

The leader of the nation’s largest pilots’ union said crews will be able to handle the impact of 5G, but he criticized the way the wireless licenses were granted, saying it had added unnecessary risk to aviation.

Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg recently told airlines that flights could be disrupted because a small portion of the nation’s fleet has not been upgraded to protect against radio interference.

But the worst fears about 5G hadn’t cropped up by mid-afternoon Saturday, prompting Transportation Department spokesperson Kerry Arndt to describe flight travel as being at “near-normal” levels. But Arrndt also stressed that the Federal Aviation Administration is “working very closely with airlines to monitor summer pop-up storms, wildfire smoke, and any 5G issues.”

Most of the major US airlines had made the changes needed to adapt to 5G. American, Southwest, Alaska, Frontier and United say all of their planes have height-measuring devices, called radio altimeters, that are protected against 5G interference.

Airlines say the FAA was slow to approve standards for upgrading the radio altimeters and supply-chain problems have made it difficult for manufacturers to produce enough of the devices. Nicholas Calio, head of the Airlines for America, complained about a rush to modify planes “amid pressure from the telecommunications companies.”

Jason Ambrosi, a Delta pilot and president of the Air Line Pilots Association, accused the FCC of granting 5G licenses without consulting aviation interests, which he said “has left the safest aviation system in the world at increased risk.” But, he said, “Ultimately, we will be able to address the impacts of 5G.”

People travel through Salt Lake City International Airport on Friday. PHOTO: AP
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