Issue No. 847

The 5G Crisis That Wasn't

U.S. Airlines Warned of Chaos But Delaying The 5G Network Bought Them Time

Pushing Back: Inside The Issue

The U.S. air transport system would grind to halt, stranding tens of thousands of passengers all over the world and further disrupting the supply chain by critically disrupting cargo. At least, that's what the airline industry predicted would happen if AT&T and Verizon pressed ahead with their 5G wireless networks. The telecommunications companies agreed — grudgingly — to a further delay to let the Federal Aviation Administration and the aviation sector work out where interference with radio altimeters might occur and on what aircraft. By the end of last week, most aircraft types and major airports had been cleared, so the crisis was averted. Partially. Regional airlines still don't have clarity on much of the smaller airports they operate to and on certain fleet types. So now, the U.S. has a mostly functioning air transport system, but slower mobile internet.

American and United reported fourth-quarter and full-year 2021 earnings. The Omicron variant hit both. United, which had expected to fly more capacity this year than in 2019, revised its guidance and now plans to operate less capacity than 2019. But leaders at both airlines believe Covid-19 is on its way to becoming an endemic disease.

The other thing to note? An era ends. Last week's call was American CEO Doug Parker's last at the helm of the airline. It was his 107th consecutive quarterly call, counting from when he was America West's chief financial officer.

The Airline Weekly Lounge Podcast

The rollout of 5G wireless technology threatened major disruptions to the U.S. air transport system until it didn’t, in a crisis that J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker likened to Y2K. Hosts Madhu Unnikrishnan and Edward “Ned” Russell also discuss the pilot shortage, and what they expected from American Airlines and United Airlines 2021 results. Listen to the episode here, and a full archive of the 'Lounge is here.

Weekly Skies

U.S. airlines face an increasingly challenging situation finding pilots for their regional affiliates. This shortage is affecting schedules and the recovery and, at least for American Airlines, costing millions of dollars to rectify.

In its fourth-quarter results, American reported $61 million in special charges related to “regional pilot retention.” This comes from the more than $180,000 in signing bonuses and financial incentives in place at its wholly owned subsidiaries Envoy, Piedmont Airlines, and PSA Airlines to attract and retain new crew members.

“The issue we have is the throughput of pilots and getting them into training,” said Robert Isom, president and incoming CEO of American, during the carrier’s fourth-quarter and full-year earnings call last week. He cited lower numbers of new pilots produced during the pandemic that, coupled with the early retirements during the crisis, has constrained hiring, particularly at U.S. regional airlines that the entree point for most crew members into the industry.

In addition to the added costs, American has suspended select regional routes this spring to mitigate the impact of the shortage. And American is not alone: Delta Air Lines has cut regional flying by up to a quarter in the first half, and United Airlines has parked more than 100 small jets and cancelled routes and destinations as a result.

Experts have warned that the pilot shortage in the U.S. could hamper the airline recovery this year. For American that means only recovering capacity to roughly 95 percent of 2019 levels this year, which is slightly lower than the forecast it provided in October.

Aside from pilots, American does not face any issues hiring, said Isom. The airline plans to hire 18,000 people across functions, including flight attendants, mechanics, pilots, and reservations agents, in 2022.

On a positive note, American CEO Doug Parker said that the airline — and the broader U.S. industry — has put the operational affects of both the Omicron variant and botched 5G wireless rollout behind it. But that is not before thousands of Omicron-related flight cancellations over the holidays and into January, and only after several global airlines cancelled select flights to the U.S. amid 5G concerns.

“It wasn’t our finest hour as a country to get us to that point,” Parker said Thursday. Government agencies, planemakers, and the telecom companies are now talking and sharing info, which will allow the safe full rollout of 5G technology, which allows for faster wireless speeds, he added.

American cancelled more than eight flights and delayed others as a result of the 5G rollout, according to a memo from operations chief David Seymour on Wednesday. The airline is awaiting U.S. Federal Aviation Administration authorization to operate Airbus A320 family aircraft and Bombardier and Embraer regional jets to airports near 5G transmitters during bad weather that require automated approaches. There are fears that the wireless technology could interfere with the altimeters on these aircraft.

While the 5G rollout debacle is a black eye for regulators, Omicron was outside of everyone’s control. The variant adversely impacted demand after the holidays, and particularly in January and February when American expects losses before a significant improvement in March.

The broader pandemic recovery remains on track, according to Isom. Omicron only affected the “timing” of the recovery to later in 2022 but not the fundamentals. Critically, domestic business travel continued to recovery in the fourth quarter to 70 percent of 2019 levels. However, Isom said the business travel mix remains changed — likely permanently — with American carrying more small- and medium-sized business (SME) travelers rather than managed corporate account travelers. Domestic and short-haul international leisure demand has nearly fully recovered. Only long-haul international demand remains down significantly from 2019 levels.

While American did not forecast a 2022 profit, Isom said the airline does anticipate returning to profitability later in the year.

One bright spot for 2022 is the arrival of its 13 delayed Boeing 787s. American anticipates deliveries of the jets to begin in mid-April — more than a year late in most cases — with four aircraft expected to be in place for the peak summer period, said Chief Financial Officer Derek Kerr. However, he noted that the April date was unchanged for several months and warned that any additional delays from Boeing could push it back.

American lost $931 million in the fourth quarter despite improving revenue trends. The airline brought in $9.4 billion in revenues during the period, which was down nearly 17 percent compared to 2019 but a nearly eight-point improvement from the decrease in the third quarter. Expenses were down just 3.6 percent year-over-two-years to $10.2 billion. Passenger traffic was down nearly 17 percent compared to 2019 on a 13 percent decrease in capacity.

For the full year, American lost nearly $2 billion including the benefit of $4 billion in special items particularly federal Covid-19 relief. Revenues were down almost 35 percent to $29.9 billion and expenses were down almost 28 percent to $30.9 billion compared to 2019.

American forecasts revenues at 78-80 percent of 2019 levels, and capacity at 90-92 percent in the first quarter.

The call Thursday marked Parker’s final earnings presentation. While only CEO of American since December 2013 after orchestrating its merger with US Airways, the call was his 107th consecutive results presentation after becoming chief financial officer of America West Airlines in June 1995. Parker steps down as CEO on March 31 though he will remain as non-executive chairman of the airline’s board.

“Our goal right now is to get back to profitability as soon as possible and deliver a reliable product,” said Isom, who will take over as CEO from Parker.

Edward Russell

Omicron Crimps United’s Capacity Plans

United Airlines’ ambitious plans to fly 5 percent more capacity this year than in 2019 ran into an obstacle named Omicron. Due to the spread of the coronavirus variant, the airline now expects to fly less than it did in 2019, with most of the hit coming in the first quarter.

The carrier didn’t offer new capacity guidance, but affirmed that it is reversing its October forecast and will fly less than in 2019.

During the first quarter, United expects capacity to be down 16-18 percent from 2019, a reduction it did not see coming when it updated investors in October. The Omicron variant has hit United in two ways. First, passenger bookings began to drop in December and continued falling into January and February. Cancellations similarly spiked.

Second, the airline reported staff shortages during the holiday period, especially before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) shortened its quarantine guidance from 10 days to five, a change actively sought by the airline industry. Despite this, CEO Scott Kirby noted that not one United employee has died during the Omicron surge — compared with roughly one employee death per week before vaccines became widely available — and none of its vaccinated employees have been hospitalized during this wave of the pandemic.

United, which has the strictest vaccine mandate in the U.S. airline industry, took flak last year for its policy requiring vaccines for all employees. But Kirby pointed out the policy’s success. “Our vaccine requirement has truly saved lives,” he said on the company’s fourth-quarter and full-year earnings call last week.

The company is confident the Omicron surge will soon be behind it. Bookings for March travel have stabilized, and demand for transatlantic travel during the summer are strong and are exceeding 2019 levels, Chief Commercial Officer Andrew Nocella said. The recovery of United’s East Asia and Southeast Asia network remains slow, due to travel restrictions in the region, but the carrier expects to rebuild its large presence in Japan and China eventually. More capacity is being added to Africa, India, and the Middle East to offset the slower recovery in Asia.

But, like many of their peers, United’s management believes Covid-19 is on its way to being and endemic disease, and the carrier is planning for that future. “We believe and certainly hope that as a company and society, we are moving into the endemic stage of Covid,” Kirby said. “But we’ll continue to manage as we have throughout the crisis and once again this quarter and be responsive to what actually happens instead of what we hope will happen.”

Customer behavior has changed during the pandemic: Leisure travelers are booking tickets closer to their travel dates, behavior which before the pandemic was more typical of business travelers. But Nocella is encouraged by the trends. In the first week of January, bookings were 48 percent lower than in 2019, as travelers cancelled flights due to the Omicron surge. By the second week, bookings were down 40 percent, and by the third, 25 percent. The carrier expects trends to revert to normal by the middle of next month. “March looks normal,” Nocella said. “There’s a hole in January that we can’t fill.”

One way that United will partially fill that hole is by bringing back 52 grounded Boeing 777s. Those aircraft have been grounded since early last year, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) required further inspections on the Pratt & Whitney engines’ fan blades after a dramatic engine failure over Denver. (The majority of United’s 777 fleet is not powered by Pratt & Whitney engines and were not affected.) The grounded aircraft represented about 10 percent of United’s business, and are expected to start returning to the fleet in March, Nocella said.

United also is taking delivery of eight Boeing 787s this year, delayed from last year due to the FAA requiring Boeing to inspect their fuselages. And the carrier expects to take delivery of more than 50 Boeing 737 Max aircraft and plans to bring dozens of temporarily parked aircraft out of mothballs by the end of this year, later than originally planned.

The airline sees no difficulties in staffing those aircraft, despite the looming pilot shortage. United hired 1,200 pilots last year and expects to hire at a similar rate this year. In the next year or two, there could be fewer pilots coming from the regional carriers, but longer-term, United believes it can fulfill its pilot needs through its Aviate pilot-training program and through higher pay than offered at the regional airlines. “The big difference for us at the mainline is that at United, we create careers,” Kirby said. “They’re not just jobs.”

But the regional airline pilot shortage has had an effect. The carrier has had to end service to more than 20 cities due to its regional partners not being able to operate those flights. “We are facing the pilot shortage on our regional aircraft, not on our mainline aircraft,” Nocella said. “And we expect that pilot shortage to continue for a while, including for the rest of 2022; so we do expect, unfortunately, there will be a few more communities that we will have to remove from the network.”

Concerns over the deployment of 5G wireless networks have largely faded, now that Verizon and AT&T have agreed to a further delay of the rollout around several airports. Although some regional aircraft have had to divert this week, most flights are operating as planned. “I want to thank the White House, [Transportation] Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and the CEOs of AT&T and Verizon for finding and agreeing to an approach that mostly avoided what would have been severe disruption to passenger and cargo operations in this country,” Kirby said.

“While I wish it happened earlier, the good news is we now have everyone engaged, the FAA and DOT at the highest levels, the equipment aircraft manufacturers, airlines and the telecoms,” he added. “And I’m confident we’ll soon have a clear set of objective criteria that allow full rollout of 5G without significant impact to aviation.”

United reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $600 million, and a $2 billion net loss for the full year. Revenues in the fourth quarter were down 25 percent from the same period in 2019, to $8.2 billion. The carrier expects first-quarter 2022 revenue to be 20-25 percent lower than the same period in 2019.

An area of continuing strength for United, with its large Asia network and the ongoing logjams at ports and with surface transport, is cargo. Freight revenues were up 130 percent from 2019, to $727 million in the fourth quarter, a record for the airline. And for the full year, cargo revenues were up 100 percent from 2019, to $2.3 billion. “The supply chain disruptions, the backups at the ports, these things look likely to continue to some degree for the foreseeable future as we head into 2022,” Nocella said. “So we’re optimistic that cargo is going to have another great year.”

— Madhu Unnikrishnan

Latam and Aeromexico Face New Objections to Restructuring Plans

Aeromexico and Latam Airlines Group cannot catch a break in their separate, but fraught, U.S. Chapter 11 bankruptcy restructurings. Both airlines face allegations of using coercive tactics, namely offering creditors additional funds or the promise of future business, to garner support for their respective reorganization plans.

A group of Chilean bondholders represented by trustee Banco del Estado de Chile argued on January 20 that Latam offered “patently unreasonable” settlements totaling $2.8 billion to a creditor group known as the Evercore Group in exchange for their support of its plan. The support of the group would effectively nullify the votes of the Chilean bondholders and general unsecured creditors, according to the claim.

Members of the Evercore Group Sajama Investments, a partnership of Sixth Street Partners and Sculptor Capital Management, and SVP, including Poppintree Park LLC and Strategic Value Partners, both objected on January 20 to the Chilean bondholders claims. They called the allegations “theories” and “conjectures.”

The unsecured creditors committee in Aeromexico’s bankruptcy objected for a second time to the airline’s restructuring plan on January 18. The committee claimed that Aeromexico built support for its plan by offering creditors special benefits, the promise of future business, or the threat of a worse outcome if the plan was rejected. The committee alleges that these efforts contributed to nearly two-thirds of the 88 percent of votes in favor of the plan.

In addition, the committee claimed that Aeromexico’s plan unfairly favors “insiders,” namely major shareholder Delta Air Lines and four Mexican shareholders — Eduardo Tricio Haro, Valentin Diez Morodo, Jorge Esteve Recolons, and Antonio Cosio Pando — that control the majority of the airline’s board. The plan would give Delta 20 percent of the airline’s post-bankruptcy shareholdings, and the Mexican shareholders at least 4.1 percent.

Aeromexico said on January 21 that it “continues working with all of its key stakeholders” to achieve confirmation of its reorganization plan.

The objections are the latest stumbling blocks in Aeromexico and Latam’s fraught restructuring processes. Unlike their competitor Avianca that exited Chapter 11 in December, the airlines have faced challenges building consensus for their plans among creditors. Aeromexico has faced multiple objections from its unsecured creditors, while Latam is subject to an unsolicited takeover offer from Azul that is backed by several of its large creditors.

Aeromexico settled the unsecured creditors’ initial objection, which centered on the post-restructuring valuation of the airline, by agreeing to a one-time cash termination payment upon confirmation.

Latam has as yet fended off Azul’s takeover proposal, which it called “skeletal and incomplete” in a court filing on January 16. However, its own unsecured creditors committee asked the Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York in December to end Latam’s exclusivity period. If granted, Azul and its supporters could officially submit their takeover plan for consideration.

For its part, Latam said in its January 16 filing that requests to Azul for additional details and information related to its proposal were “entirely unanswered.”

Hearings for both the confirmation of Aeromexico’s plan, and on Latam’s disclosure statement — a precursor to a confirmation hearing — are scheduled for January 27. Aeromexico aims to exit bankruptcy in the first quarter, and Latam in the second half of 2022.

Edward Russell

In Other News

  • WestJet has extended its January schedule reductions through February as the Omicron variant continues to adversely effect its workforce. The carrier will reduce capacity by 20 percent through February 28. WestJet is also pushing for the Canadian government to eliminate “cumbersome travel rules” that it says stymie the travel recovery.
  • Qantas has slashed March quarter domestic capacity by another 10 percent, after bringing it down to 70 percent of 2019 levels earlier in January. The latest cut was due to Western Australia’s decision to keep its borders closed indefinitely amid Australia’s Omicron surge. The reductions to Western Australia are in place through March 31.
  • Jet fuel prices surged by 68 percent last year and are now at their highest levels since the end of 2018, IATA data show. This is putting significant pressure on airlines’ costs and is not expected to abate any time soon. But with that said, IATA reports that airlines narrowed their losses, to 2.6 percent of revenue in the third quarter, down from 13.6 percent in the second quarter of last year. One interesting tidbit: Premium revenues are lagging economy revenues, a reversal of a trend seen at the start of the pandemic, when premium fares were holding up better. IATA attributes the reversal to the fact that the gap between premium and economy fares is reverting back to near its pre-pandemic norm.
  • Flight attendants at American regional carrier Piedmont reached a tentative four-year agreement with the carrier that will raise wages and enhance other benefits. The deal, which was negotiated with the National Mediation Board, now goes before union members for a vote. It ends contentious, years-long talks that ended in October with a strike authorization vote. “Solidarity works,” Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, said. “Credible strike threats work.”
  • Here’s one way to address the U.S. pilot shortage. Startup Avelo is raising pilot pay by 50 percent and first officer pay by 30 percent and is offering $20,000 signing bonuses to pilots who start before this summer, among other benefits. The carrier hopes to hire 120 pilots this year.
  • Air Astana said it resumed operating its full schedule and network on January 18, after suspending much of its network for 10 days due to social unrest and political violence in Kazakhstan. Almaty Airport, which serves the country’s commercial capital, was closed until January 13, while Russian troops were deployed in Kazakhstan to help quell the uprising. The airport at Kazakhstan’s political capital, Nur-Sultan, remained open throughout the crisis, local media report.

Edward Russell & Madhu Unnikrishnan

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  • The row between Airbus and Qatar Airways escalated. The airframer has cancelled Qatar’s order for 50 A321neos, “in accordance with our rights,” a spokesman confirmed. The two companies have been sparring over Qatar’s fleet of A350s, which the Doha-based carrier says suffer from unacceptable paint issues, a charge Airbus denies. Qatar is seeking more than $600 million from Airbus in compensation through the courts.
  • Boeing’s 737 Max took another step in its slow return to the sky in China and Indonesia, two of the last hold outs since the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration was the first to re-certify the jet in November 2020. China Southern and Hainan Airlines both flew Maxes on test flights in China on January 21, and Lion Air — one of the airline’s that suffered a fatal Max crash that led to the type’s nearly two-year grounding — flew a 737-8 on a test flight over Indonesia the same day, according to Flightradar24.
  • Startup Breeze Airways will introduce its first Airbus A220s on passenger flights on May 4. The aircraft, which Breeze will eventually uses on longer routes, will initially operate on six routes from Tampa: Akron-Canton, Charleston, Louisville, Norfolk, Oklahoma City, and Richmond. Breeze took delivery of its first of 80 A220-300s in December.
  • Dubai Aerospace Enterprise (DAE) has placed two Boeing 737 Maxes with Icelandair. The Icelandic carrier will take delivery of the 737-8s under long-term leases this spring, and plans to fly 14 737 Max aircraft this summer. With the deal, DAE has placed all of the 10 remaining 737 Maxes it has on order with the balance going to Aeromexico under a deal unveiled in July.
  • UK startup Flypop, which aims to begin flying low-cost flights to “secondary cities” in South Asia this summer, has started with cargo. The carrier took delivery of its second Airbus A330, which it is now using a freighter until passenger operations start later this year.

Edward Russell & Madhu Unnikrishnan

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Hawaiian Airlines is quietly changing its distribution strategy. Beginning April 1, travel agencies in the U.S. that use the “legacy technologies” of the global distribution systems Amadeus, Sabre, and Travelport will be cut off from the airline’s fares for travel within the Hawaiian Islands.

Plus, agencies using those channels to access content will have to pay a surcharge.

“For years, we waited, thinking we couldn’t be the first with a surcharge strategy in the U.S.,” said Tina Larson, managing director, distribution, sales strategy alliances. “We thought, ‘We’re small Hawaiian Airlines.’ We thought we needed to wait until American or United did it.”

It’s rare for a mid-size, primarily leisure carrier to adopt such a strategy. Yet Hawaiian went ahead on its own to copy overseas carriers in pushing travel agencies to switch from using old technical methods, known by the shorthand “Edifact,” to a newer process referred to loosely as the New Distribution Capability, or NDC.

Several airlines believe they’ll sell more using the more modern form of data exchange. The travel distribution players Amadeus, Sabre, and Travelport say they are offering this more modern retailing, too, but commercial terms remain a point of dispute.

A turning point was when Hawaiian hired consultancy T2RL and its co-CEO Cory Garner, a former American Airlines distribution executive, advised the carrier to think differently.

Garner told Hawaiian it should have a different strategy from large carriers that are more dependent on corporate travel and have large networks. He suggested that Hawaiian is functionally similar to a national flag carrier in that it is a destination-based carrier with a significant market share on key routes.

For years, Hawaiian has offered web-only fares outside the global distribution systems and only through its website. Agencies have long wanted access to them. So as a lure to agencies, Hawaiian is offering those web fares to agencies that access its content via HA Connect, its partner portal, or via approved aggregators, such as’s Travelfusion and a handful of other vendors.

Adopting the new process will take time. Starting January 24, agencies will be able to connect to its application programming interface, or API. Larson’s staff will offer free training and a lot of webinars and other educational tools to agencies interested in connecting.

Less tech-savvy agencies can instead use its extranet, called a partner portal (built by Accelya), without the need for large technology infrastructure.

Hawaiian said it would reveal the distribution surcharge fee around early March. Qantas’ fee is roughly in line with other airline surcharges worldwide. Air France-KLM charges $15 (€13) for a one-way ticket. International Airlines Group is on a similar fee level. Since October 1, Lufthansa Group has charged a $21 fee in the U.S. (€19 in Europe). 

“In our case, we want to make sure our goal with the surcharge is cost recovery in what the third parties charge us,” Larson said. “We don’t want to exceed that. This surcharge is not a revenue generator. So we’re working with our revenue management teams to make sure we’re calculating this right.”

Hawaiian wasn’t locked into especially tight terms with Amadeus, Sabre, or Travelport, Larson said. So it doesn’t believe it is falling foul of its contracts with its new strategy.

“It’s encouraging to see the GDSes entering into agreements with other carriers about NDC agreements,” Larson said. “We have ongoing discussions with the GDSes about that. But right now, given the flexibility we have, we can move forward with this strategy in the way we’ve announced.”

That’s the proverbial “stick.” On the “carrots” side of the equation, the carrier appeals to agencies by offering a few perks. “We will ‘dynamically price’ our extra comfort seat product right away,” Larson said. “We’ll also have loyalty entitlements.”

Larson said the airline’s revenue management team is creating more ancillary products, meaning bundles of flights with extras, such as free checked luggage, priced in an ever-changing manner that responds to shifts in supply and demand.

For more than seven years, Hawaiian has been using a merchandising manager tool from Farelogix, a company bought by Accelya in 2020.

Ahead of its switch in distribution strategy, Hawaiian bought Accelya’s full suite of services for managing the new distribution capability.

Hawaiian is making a move that’s not without risk. It is essentially making some of its flights more expensive, via the surcharge, and more of a hassle to book, via its processes outside the traditional reservation systems used by agencies. That friction could prompt some agencies to shift consumers into booking tickets on rival carriers, such as Southwest Airlines.

Larson didn’t sound worried, though. “We have been having really productive conversations with our largest agencies, the ones that comprise the bulk of our bookings,” Larson said. “It gives us a lot of confidence in our strategy because when we approached these same partners a few years ago, they gave us a definitive ‘no.'”

What’s changed?

“Agencies have come to acknowledge that customer expectations have changed and that customers want the same experience they get in retail and other online shopping environments — Amazon is always the example here,” Larson said. “We want to put the most relevant products in front of the customer and be able to bundle products and accurately market our products.”

Sean O’Neill

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Routes and Networks

  • Air France will add a fourth Canadian point to its map this summer. The SkyTeam member will connect Quebec City to its Paris Charles de Gaulle hub thrice weekly with an Airbus A330-200 from May 17. Air France will go up against leisure-operator Transat on the route. Quebec City complements Air France’s existing service to Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver.
  • Qatar Airways is adding two more African destinations to its map in March. The Oneworld carrier will connect Doha with Kano from March 2, and Port Harcourt from March 3. Kano flights will operate four-times weekly via Abuja, and Port Harcourt thrice weekly also via Abuja on Boeing 787 aircraft. Qatar will be the only Gulf carrier serving either destination, though Saudia flies to Kano and Turkish Airlines to Port Harcourt, Cirium schedules show.
  • The U.S. pilot shortage continues to take its toll on airline schedules. American Airlines is the latest to disclose route cuts with seven markets suspended from March 3 into April, according to Cirium schedules. Suspended routes include flights between Chicago O’Hare and Evansville, Ind., Greenville-Spartanburg, S.C., Huntsville, Ala., and Montreal; Dallas-Fort Worth and Long Beach; and Los Angeles and both Northwest Arkansas and Reno. An American spokesperson described the move as one to “mitigate any future travel disruptions” from the shortage.
  • Avianca continues the drum beat of new routes on its way to 50 additions by 2023. Following two additions to the U.S. earlier in January, the Star Alliance carrier has unveiled five more new routes: Bogotá to Ipiales, Colombia; Medellin to Riohacha, Colombia; and San Jose, Costa Rica, to Cartagena, Medellin, and Quito. All of the routes begin in late March, except for Bogotá-Ipiales that begins on May 16. Avianca also plans to resume service to London Heathrow on March 28.
  • Eurowings is expanding its new Stockholm base before it even opens. The Lufthansa Group discounter will connect Stockholm’s Arlanda airport to Rhodes from May 31, and Heraklion from June 2. Both routes will operate twice weekly. Eurowings will serve 18 cities nonstop from Stockholm with the additions, and the resumption of flights to Cologne Bonn on May 20.
  • Frontier Airlines is taking on discount giant Southwest Airlines with 13 routes from two of its largest bases. Frontier will connect Chicago Midway to Atlanta, Dallas-Fort Worth, Denver, Las Vegas, Ontario, Calif., Phoenix, Tampa, and Trenton, N.J., from April; and to Fort Lauderdale and Orlando from October. And in May, the airline will connect Houston Hobby to Cancun, Las Vegas, and Orlando. Frontier will compete with Southwest on all but two of the routes — Chicago to Dallas-Fort Worth and Trenton — per Cirium. However, Southwest connects Chicago to Dallas Love Field, and Philadelphia; two airports serving similar catchment areas as DFW and Trenton.
  • Ryanair is adding 11 new routes from its Dublin home with the addition of a 33rd aircraft at its base there. The discounter will serve 120 destinations from Dublin this summer with the additions of Agadir, Morocco; Alghero, Italy; Cardiff, U.K.; Košice, Slovakia; Madeira, Portugal; Nimes, France; Nuremberg, Germany; Plovdiv, Bulgaria; Sibiu and Suceava, România; and Zagreb, Croatia.
  • 33 years was a good run. That’s how long Cape Air has continuously flown the Boston-Provincetown route that, due to the pilot shortage plaguing U.S. regionals and elevated sick calls due to staff out with Covid-19, the airline is suspending from the end of January through April 1. The suspension is the longest in the airline’s history on the route.

Edward Russell

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Feature Story

Chaos was averted last week when two U.S. wireless companies agreed to delay turning on their 5G mobile networks near certain airports, after airlines, airports, and even the president of United States warned that doing so could cripple the national air transport system and bring the economy to a screeching halt.

Hyperbole? Possibly, but it depends on whom you ask.

On January 18, AT&T and Verizon agreed on Tuesday to delay the rollout of their 5G wireless networks — scheduled to go live January 19 — at several U.S. airports to give the FAA and airlines more time to determine if the networks will hinder landing at more than 50 airports. The delay came as anxieties were mounting among airline CEOs about a potential crisis to airlines over this new technology. 

When the day arrived, fog-bound San Francisco International Airport saw a handful of diversions to San Jose, Calif. and Reno, Nev., and isolated reports of diversions popped up around the country. But by and large, the air transport system worked as planned. “The 5G crisis feels increasingly like Y2K,” J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker wrote in a note, referring to the overblown fears that January 1, 2000 would cause a global computer meltdown and plunge the world into a pre-industrial darkness.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t legitimate concerns. There are. The frequencies and transmitter power AT&T and Verizon will use for their 5G networks could interfere with radio altimeters on certain aircraft. The FAA revealed a list of 50 airports — including most major U.S. markets — that could be affected by 5G’s interference. It also issued 1,500 notices to airlines and airports to restrict specific flight paths and landing approaches. Most of those approaches have been cleared and, by the end of the week, most aircraft types also had been cleared.

But many smaller airports and regional aircraft were not. By week’s end many regional aircraft had been cleared, but issues remained not just with specific airports but approaches to specific runways during adverse weather. FAA first cleared larger aircraft, but did not immediately approve smaller aircraft to operate where there could be interference. “We worried that the optics could be that passengers in smaller communities would be a lower priority,” said Faye Malarkey Black, president of the Regional Airlines Association (RAA).

FAA’s list of 50 airports excluded dozens of airports that serve smaller cities — the spokes in the air transport system’s hub-and-spoke network. Even if FAA approved large aircraft to operate in major metropolitan areas, more than 60 percent of U.S. passengers fly on regional airlines, Black told Airline Weekly. “The long-term effect of this will be scheduling shifts,” she said. “The short-term effect will be incredible disruption,” she said.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the FAA engaged in an extraordinary amount of fingerpointing over where the blame lay. The FCC and the wireless companies say the FAA and the Transportation Department waited until November to issue preliminary warnings on the interference issue, despite having known about the technology for more than a year. The FAA, however, says the wireless companies and their regulator did not provide all the data needed to determine the extent of the interference.

The wireless carriers’ announcement came too late to avoid several international airlines announcing they are cancelling flights to some of the affected airports. Air India, All Nippon Airways, Emirates, and Japan Airlines were among the airlines that cut some flights to the U.S. Each carrier cited the FAA’s warning that the new 5G networks could interfere with radio altimeters on Boeing 777 aircraft. By the end of the week, most of those flights were restored as the FAA cleared more aircraft types to operate near the networks.

President Joseph R. Biden thanked the wireless companies for further delaying the deployment. “This agreement protects flight safety and allows aviation operations to continue without significant disruption and will bring more high-speed internet options to millions of Americans,” he said. “My team has been engaging non-stop with the wireless carriers, airlines, and aviation equipment manufacturers to chart a path forward for 5G deployment and aviation to safely co-exist.” 

AT&T and Verizon had expected to deploy the new 5G networks on January 5 but agreed to a two-week delay, until January 19, after the FAA warned that the networks could snarl flights across the country. The FAA said the delay would buy it time to determine the extent of the potential radio interference.

But two weeks proved not long enough. On January 17, the heads of most U.S. airlines through Airlines For America (A4A) warned of severe travel woes beginning January 19 and asked the Biden administration to intervene. “Immediate intervention is needed to avoid significant operational disruption to air passengers, shippers, supply chain and delivery of needed medical supplies,” they wrote in a letter to the heads of the FAA, the National Economic Council, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel.

“The ripple effects across both passenger and cargo operations, our workforce and the broader economy are simply incalculable,” they wrote. “Every one of the passenger and cargo carriers will be struggling to get people, shipments, planes and crews where they need to be. To be blunt, the nation’s commerce will grind to a halt.”

AT&T and Verizon grudgingly agreed to a further delay, but noted that the FAA had ample time to identify the interference issues. “At our sole discretion we have voluntarily agreed to temporarily defer turning on a limited number of towers around certain airport runways as we continue to work with the aviation industry and the FAA to provide further information about our 5G deployment, since they have not utilized the two years they’ve had to responsibly plan for this deployment,” an AT&T spokesperson said. “We are frustrated by the FAA’s inability to do what nearly 40 countries have done, which is to safely deploy 5G technology without disrupting aviation services, and we urge it do so in a timely manner.”

“As the nation’s leading wireless provider, we have voluntarily decided to limit our 5G network around airports. The Federal Aviation Administration and our nation’s airlines have not been able to fully resolve navigating 5G around airports, despite it being safe and fully operational in more than 40 other countries,” a Verizon spokesperson said.

On January 20, the CEOs of American Airlines and United Airlines expressed relief that the 5G crisis did not result in chaos. But Black cautioned that until the regional airlines are approved to operate all their equipment to all the airports they serve, the turmoil will continue. “The crisis was not averted,” she said.

— Madhu Unnikrishnan 

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