Foreign Airlines Say FAA Underestimated 5G Retrofit Costs

Proposed U.S. requirements to retrofit airplane altimeters to ensure they are not susceptible to 5G wireless interference could cost the industry hundreds of millions of dollars more than the FAA estimated, the world’s biggest airline trade body told the agency last week.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) represents more than 100 foreign carriers that fly to and from the United States. It said in comments to the FAA that Inside Towers obtained, the costs could be $637 million, not the $26 million estimated by the agency. The association notes that FAA estimates do not include the 3,240 foreign carriers facing the July 1, 2023, deadline for aircraft that would need to be modified to avoid radio altimeter interference. The IATA believes the costs for the 6,000 planes already retrofitted and non-U.S. registered planes that will be impacted should be included in the total. 

Inside Towers reported the association believes that foreign carriers can’t meet the deadline due to supply chain issues and cost constraints.

The FAA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking suggests the total cost of compliance would be about $26 million for U.S. registered aircraft, at approximately $26,000 per aircraft (for filter upgrades or radio altimeter replacements for the 1,000 aircraft that have not already been modified), Inside Towers reported. The IATA believes the figure is too low. It tells the FAA: “One of the leading airlines in the world confirmed to IATA a cost of $52,000 per aircraft for upgrades of existing radio altimeters and a cost of $80,000 per aircraft for full radio altimeter replacements.”

The association is also chafing at what it says is foreign carriers being “disadvantaged” in the retrofit process. “In the first place, it is unreasonable to expect non-U.S. carriers to make multimillion-dollar investments in retrofits absent a clear directive from the FAA and adoption of the same by their local regulator. Second, non-U.S. carriers are disadvantaged compared to their U.S. carrier counterparts because the radio altimeter manufacturers have (understandably) prioritized the radio altimeter equipment needs of the much larger U.S. commercial fleet over that of the non-U.S. carriers.”

AT&T and Verizon spent more than $80 billion on the C-band 5G spectrum. Last June they voluntarily agreed to delay some C-band 5G operations around certain airports until July 2023, as air carriers work to retrofit airplanes to ensure they will not face interference.

The IATA says the airlines shouldn’t need to pay for the entire retrofit. It told the FAA: “The aviation industry, rather than the FCC or the telecommunications companies, is being told to pay to upgrade its certified radio altimeters. The unfairness of this cannot be overstated.”

The FCC, AT&T and Verizon did not immediately comment to Reuters.

By Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

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