If you use wireless services, you’re most likely experiencing the amazing benefits of the new 5G frequency. But were you aware of the impact that 5G is having on the aviation industry?
On January 19, 2022, the United States launched 5G services in 46 markets that use frequencies in a radio spectrum called the “C-band.” Since this rollout, there’s been widespread concern in the aviation industry that these frequencies could interfere with the aircraft’s radio altimeter, which is an important piece of equipment that can help serve as the pilot’s eyes on takeoff and landing. So, how is the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) keeping the skies safe through it all? We take a deep dive into this important topic, so you know what to expect if you’re traveling this summer.
What is 5G technology?
Essentially, 5G technology is the fifth generation of mobile networks that is now considered the global standard. With unprecedented speed and higher bandwidth, 5G is transforming the way we communicate by adding higher flexibility and scalability. Why then is this affecting the aviation industry? The answer lies not with 5G technology itself, but the spectrum it is being used on; specifically, the C-band, which is deployed at a frequency band of 3.7-3.98 GHz.
How is 5G posing a disruption risk to aviation?
According to the FAA, the frequencies in the radio spectrum of the C-band can be “close to those used by radio altimeters.” This vicinity is causing interference issues with the radio altimeter radar. To mitigate this potentially hazardous interference, the FAA issued an airworthiness directive (AD): “…revising the landing requirements of certain Boeing 737 aircraft where 5G interference could occur.” According to the agency, this specific series of aircraft relies on the radio altimeter, including auto throttle, ground proximity warning, thrust reversers and Traffic Collision Avoidance System.
It’s important to note that the AD does not apply to landings at airports where:
- The FAA determined the aircraft radio altimeters are safe and reliable
- 5G isn’t deployed
Other safety restrictions the FAA has imposed to mitigate the interference issues include:
- Ensuring radio altimeters are accurate and reliable
- Imposing restrictions on flight operations that use certain types of radio altimeter equipment that are close to antennas in 5G networks
In order to understand the impact this might have on flights, it’s important to understand the function of a radio altimeter.
Here is what radio altimeters do:
- Provide highly accurate information about an aircraft’s height above the ground
- Relays data to other safety equipment on the plane, including navigation instruments, terrain awareness and collision-avoidance systems
How radio altimeters help pilots and co-pilots:
- Serve as their eyes on take-off and landing
- Gauge landing gear on both take-off and landing
- Gauge when and how hard they hit the brakes
The FAA continues to work every day to reduce effects of this disruption as we make progress to safely integrate 5G and aviation.
Why some airports have temporary buffer zones
Since the rollout of C-band this past January, a temporary buffer zone was placed around 50 U.S. airports to ban the new 5G coverage for six months. Wireless companies—including AT&T and Verizon—have been working closely with the FAA by switching off their transmitters and making other adjustments to the C-band 5G signal in the frequencies around airports in these buffer zones. For now, these temporary zones—which encompass about one mile around landing runways—ban this frequency, thus giving planes a 20-second signal-free window as they make their approach for landing.
How the FAA is protecting travelers
According to the FAA, aviation in the U.S. is the safest in the world. Here is how this agency backs up its statement:
- They rely on data to mitigate risk
- Never assume that a piece of equipment or a given flight scenario is safe until this can be demonstrated
- Obligated to restrict flight activity if there is a risk to the flying public—and only resume activity if they can prove it is safe
The agency reports it is working with manufacturers to determine which altimeters are accurate and reliable in the U.S. for 5G deployment, and which ones need to be retrofitted or replaced. The FAA is working to ensure that radio signals from newly activated wireless telecommunications systems can coexist safely with flight operations in the United States, with input from the aviation sector and telecommunications industry.
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Sometimes the path you’re on may be leading you in the wrong direction. This was the realization for Vaughn graduate Antonio Florio ’19 when, at the age of 25, he switched gears from a career in economics and decided to pursue his passion for aviation and become an air traffic controller. Now, at 29, he’s training for his future at New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZNY) on Long Island. Read on to learn how a conversation with his uncle sparked his ambition to go back to college and follow his lifelong dream of being an eye in the sky.
Keeping an eye on the sky
Growing up in Rockland County, New York, Florio always had his eyes on the sky. He remembers how going to the airport was one of his favorite things to do as a child. “From as far back as I can remember, I would always have my head out of the car window, looking up at the planes as we drove to the airport—or anywhere for that matter,” Florio said laughingly. “Airplanes always fascinated me.”
Finding his way
After graduating from high school, Florio attended the State University of New York at Oneonta, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in economics in 2015. For the next three years, he worked in this field but eventually realized the economics industry was not for him. “I was bored at my job,” he said. “I wasn’t happy going to work every day. I knew I had to make a change.” Then, one day he had a conversation with his uncle, who happened to be a pilot. “My uncle saw how unhappy I was at my job and suggested I pursue a career in aviation like him,” Florio explained. “I knew I didn’t want to be a pilot, but my uncle suggested becoming an air traffic controller. The rest is history.” Florio left his job and took some time off to travel and contemplate his next move. Knowing he had his sights set on becoming an air traffic controller, the next decision was where to earn his degree.
Being a native New Yorker, Florio was familiar with Vaughn College and knew that was where he was destined to turn his passion into a career. As one of only 30 colleges in the country to offer the Air Traffic-Collegiate Training Initiative (AT-CTI), Florio was certain that Vaughn would be the best place to prepare him for a career as an air traffic controller.
“I attended a campus tour and was instantly excited about attending the College,” Florio explained. “Once I saw the control tower on campus, I was hooked!” In September 2018, he enrolled in Vaughn’s Airport Management degree program. Since Florio already had one bachelor’s degree under his belt, he was able to complete the program in one year and he graduated with his second bachelor’s degree in May 2019. “The instructors at Vaughn were instrumental in my aspirations to become an air traffic controller,” Florio said. “Their firsthand industry knowledge and sincere interest in my success was paramount during my time there.”
Applying for training
After graduating from Vaughn, Florio went through the rigorous process of applying for the air traffic controller program. According to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), applicants must meet minimum requirements before being selected to attend the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City. Florio said the process—which he describes as “intense”—took about four months to complete. In April 2020, he received notice that he’d met all the requirements and passed all the mandatory testing and evaluations. “I believe having the AT-CTI certification gave me a strong foundation of knowledge to be successful at the FAA academy,” he said. “The pool of applicants was considerable.” Florio was now one step closer to his dream. And then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. This was a major setback for Florio, but he didn’t let it hold him back. He took a job at Westchester County Airport, where he worked in the operations department to fill the time while waiting to begin his training. “Working at the airport was a great learning experience,” he said. “I gained valuable knowledge outside of the classroom that was instrumental in my career.”
Back on track
In November 2021, Florio began his training at the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City, where he remained for four months. “Training at the academy was an amazing experience,” he said. “The competition was steep, but it makes you want to work harder.” Of the eight candidates in his class, Florio was one of the four who passed the FAA training. With this milestone behind him, he was given a list of available positions across the country. “I was chosen to work in En Route Operations, which are facilities that own and operate airspace around 18,000 -to-60,000 feet,” he explained. Florio accepted the position at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center (ZNY) on Long Island located in Ronkonkoma, where he has been training for the past three months. “New York is home for me,” he said. “My fiancé and our families live here as well. I feel like I hit the lottery with this job.”
Florio explained how there is a backlog of trainees at the facility due to the COVID-19 lockdown. “I’m hoping to complete my training and become a certified professional controller within the next few years.” In the meantime, he is training on material that is specific to New York: The study of maps of the airspace in upstate New York and Pennsylvania, the airports in that airspace and military rules, among other topics.
When asked about his decision to switch careers, Florio replied: “Don’t be afraid to make a move in a different direction. You never know how it will turn out until you try, so never settle to play it safe. You have to be happy going to a job every day. It’s never too late to make that happen.”
The ongoing shortage of aviation employees—which include pilots, crew members and air traffic controllers—continues to cripple the industry. If you’re looking for a high-paying career with great benefits and a flexible schedule, becoming an air traffic controller may be the perfect job for you. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the annual median salary for air traffic controllers in 2021 was $129,750. Were you also aware that the mandatory retirement age for air traffic controllers is 56 at which point they receive a pension (50% of average pay) after working for 20 years? For this reason, aviation enthusiasts who are interested in this field are encouraged to begin the process early.
Check out our blog, “Soaring Careers: Top Five Jobs and Salaries for Aviation Degrees,” to learn more about which futureproof career may be best for you.
Do you have your sights on becoming an air traffic controller? Vaughn can get you there—and in less time than you think. Apply today!