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An airplane pilot details the issues 5G could have on flights


U.S. airlines and the nation's wireless carriers came to a short-term agreement this week to slow or limit the rollout of the new 5G wireless spectrum near some airports. That averted a mass cancellation of flights for now. But safety is still a concern. Airlines and the FAA are worried about how 5G can interfere with flight navigation, specifically with altitude measurements.

We're joined now by Captain Dennis Tajer of the Allied Pilots Association. They represent some 15,000 pilots who fly for American Airlines. Captain Tajer, thanks for being with us.

DENNIS TAJER: It's great to be with you. Thank you.

SIMON: Do you feel safe? Are you reassured with the solution so far?

TAJER: Well, we don't fly unless it's safe. No matter what the FAA says, our companies or manufacturers, if it's not safe, it's our job to be the last line of defense for our passengers. The good news is, is that is - the drama that fueled this, the pressure cooker, the false one that I believe was generated by the cell phone companies on this was unnecessary. We do have a much better path now. We have procedures now. They've tested some things at airports. We have what they call AMOC, alternative means of compliance. I have a downloaded 737, which I'm captain on. And it looks like I'm not going to have to go through this arduous checklist in most of the cases when I fly.

SIMON: Captain Tajer, I just do not understand why, let's say, Japan and France have successfully rolled out 5G and contended with this issue and the U.S. has not.

TAJER: Cellphone companies, of course, lauded the fact this has been going on in so many different countries. Well, it going on differently. For instance, in France, they had the antennas pointed downward. They brought the power of the signal down, and they backed away the frequency from the frequency that my aircraft uses for this critical input through the radio altimeter. And that protected the airplane in France for almost two minutes prior to landing, whereas in the U.S., what the cellphone companies have proposed would have given me about 20 seconds of protection and with some rapid deployment on that. So we like where we are, but we're going to keep watching.

SIMON: Well, why would there be a rush?

TAJER: Well, that's because they decided, hey, on this date, this is going to happen. The bottom line is this was a commercial interest deadline. The cell phone signal was not here to save the troops, fight terrorism. It's a commercial interest. We are very interested in having that there because companies grow based on better product. But when you start to nibble in on a margin of safety, then we're not looking at commercial interest anymore.

SIMON: I mean, what happens if you're coming in for an approach at O'Hare or LAX and the system they have in place now doesn't work?

TAJER: They've kind of - they've done a fulsome study on this. I know it was quick, but they were able to do it. And we're going to trust the engineers, trust the science. So now, that interference shouldn't happen. And if it does, it's going to be much more rare. But coming into an approach - and not even just the approach, but clear-and-a-million as we say, clear skies, if the radio altimeter gets bad information, it's feeding up to 17 different systems - engines, terrain avoidance, collision avoidance, speed brakes - these are flight controls, all the things I use for landing and flying.

So it's a lot - a bit like the 737 Max. Bad information in can cause bad things to happen down the line. And that's why the FAA was so concerned - Boeing, Airbus, our airlines and the pilot unions. But thank goodness we're past that. We still have our guard up. We're still in the ring fighting for safety. We just now have some space between us and the opponent.

SIMON: Captain Dennis Tajer, thanks so much.

TAJER: Thank you, sir.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon
Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.