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Airline industry cheers delay of new 5G band rollout

Joe DePete, president of the Airline Pilots Association, explains why the aviation industry and FAA are pushing back against the planned rollout of a new band of 5G from U.S. telecom carriers.

Video Transcript

ADAM SHAPIRO: The big news was the compromise for two weeks before AT&T and Verizon throw the switch and boost the power on their 5G service and the C-band in which that 5G communications and data transfer will be taking place. We want to talk about what the safety implications of all of this are with someone who knows firsthand. Joe DePete is the president of the Airline Pilots Association. And Captain DePete joins us now live. We appreciate your being here, Captain.

And many of us are not only tech Luddites, but we're certainly not pilots. But is there a way to help us understand, why does 5G potentially pose a safety risk to the controls that pilots are using to deliver us safely to an airport?

JOE DEPETE: Sure, great question. And first off, happy new year. And thank you for the invitation to come and speak with you today. I really enjoyed that last conversation. And I don't know if you read my bio, but I'm a Series 65 guy. And you're my go to spot for a lot of really good information. So I appreciate a great job that you all do.

Well listen, since 2018 and a little before actually, we've been very concerned about the rollout of 5G. There's been factual reports done by an organization that is specially developed to determine the minimum operational performance standards of every piece of equipment in our aircraft and how it's affected. It just so happens that in the rollout of 5G, the C-band is very close and butts up against to the frequency spectrum of our radio altimeters. And the radio altimeters on our aircraft determine not only the height above the ground in real terms, not just pressure and altitude, but in real terms above the terrain, as we come in for a landing or we're taking off.

But they're tied to many other systems in our aircraft. And let me just kind of read you,there's like 13 of them. I'm not going to go through 13 of them. But I want to emphasize how important these are. One is our auto throttles. An uncommanded reduction in our throttles on a big, let's say a triple seven at about 100 feet, at 200 feet, without a quick response, I mean a really quick response, will develop a pretty serious sink rate. And you'd have the pilot would have to arrest that sink rate very quickly.

Also when we're being vectored around in instrument meteorological conditions. In other words, we can't see anything. We rely on that for terrain avoidance. So imagine flying blind like that or getting incorrect signals to the flight crew. Also, everything from handling the aircraft, the thrust reversers, things like that. In every landing we make, we calculate the landing distance and things like that. So my point is lots of safety implications here. So a report was done. And these are the people who do this kind of report. They're Radio Technical Commission on Aeronautics called RTCA came out with a report, which was never really recognized or appreciated by the telecom industry.

We've requested their data. They refused to give it. So that set up a bit of a push and pull. Now let me point out something that's really important to your viewers. We operate the safest system, the safest air transportation system in the world. We're the envy of all. And we've done that by going from a forensic approach to accident investigation, where we had to wait for something to happen, to a risk predictive model. And it's just absolutely extraordinary.

And that was through a sheer act of will and collaboration with all the stakeholders are the FAA, the industry itself, and labor. And having two well-trained, qualified pilots, we have the highest training standards in the world. And a responsibility, a regulatory responsibility and a professional duty to keep our passengers safe. So you could see where we consider ourselves not considered-- we are the last arbiters of safety. No aircraft ever leaves the gate until we know it's safe to do so.

ADAM SHAPIRO: If I can interrupt you real quick though, but AT&T and Verizon say they fly into European airports with 5G service every day without this kind of issue. What's the difference?

JOE DEPETE: Well, the difference is-- there's a huge difference. And it's one of those kind of situations where the devil's in the details. And many of those situations, they've already developed mitigations. And we have a list of those countries and the mitigations that-- and it was cooperation between their version of the FCC and their version of the FAA to get that done. That never took place here.

And in today's-- now I applaud the decision. I think that the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon realized that this wouldn't fly. And they agreed for a two week delay and in a six month rollout. However, the problem is is that they're only going to use 50 airports, 50 of the largest airports. Well I represent pilots that fly, not only into the major hubs in those airports, but also to all the smaller communities through the regional services that we provide. And to me, there's going to need to be FAA what we call notice to air missions, NOTAMs is the abbreviation, that each time we go when we fly, we review them.

And what it's going to do, it's going to prevent our pilots from being able to fly low visibility approaches, which are going to cause more disruptions because they're not going to be able to get into these fields sometimes during weather conditions. And so there's still going to be this wave effect going into the hubs. So I think there needs to be-- we're still examining. Again, I'm pleased that we've gotten to the point. But it has to pass muster with the pilots. Because we have the ultimate responsibility to protect you and your families when you get on an airplane.

EMILY MCCORMICK: Captain DePete, this is Emily. This delay with AT&T and Verizon as you point out is for 14 days. Is that enough time to implement some of these changes that you discuss to keep flights safe?

JOE DEPETE: Well since 2018 has been enough time. So I'm not trying to be a joke on this. This is a really serious-- there's a lot of work to do in 14 days. And it's going to really matter the attitudes of the people that come together. Now I understand there was a meeting today. I'm told that the engineer, she-- it was very important. We've asked all along if they do not trust the veracity of what we're saying, what those reports were, and these are the top industry engineers that work on this stuff, then you need to show us your data, which they refuse to do.

So here's-- it's going to be very telling if they sit at the table and come to the table in the spirit of collaboration and share their data. Because that's what it's going to be. In aviation, we've created the most safest form of transportation in the history of humankind and consider the conveyance that we're putting people in metal composite tubes in the lower stratosphere. There is no form of transportation that can touch us. Since 2009, not one fatality in passenger operations.

ADAM SHAPIRO: As we wrap this up, 5G isn't going to go anywhere. And this may be a ridiculous question in that if the transmission spectrum is what's being interfered with, would it be possible to change the equipment on the aircraft to transmit in a different spectrum so as to avoid this problem?

JOE DEPETE: Well some companies, like T-Mobile, have used a different section of the frequency of the C-band and it is less of a problem. They're pretty safe. It's a broader gap between the two ranges. However, I'll say-- look. We don't compete for safety. And so we have to ensure that we've got the hard data that indicates that there could be a problem, a serious problem. And we go by 10 to the minus 9 in terms of risk assessment. That's how we got so safe.

In other words, one billionth of a chance. When you get on an airplane here in the United States, that's the kind of safety margin that we provide for you. And we-- listen. Nobody wants 5G more than us. We want 5G. We just don't think we can do it without being safe. We know that. They're not mutually exclusive. They just need to come to the table in the spirit of collaboration and do what we do in our industry, which is what we've done always, and which is how we achieve this amazing level of safety is because we collaborate.