Jan 19 (Reuters) - Disruption to U.S.-bound air travel
caused by the rollout of 5G services in the United States eased
on Wednesday as authorities approved more flights, but a top
airline warned "irresponsible" regulatory confusion would be
felt internationally for days.
Airlines and telecom companies have been at loggerheads
over the deployment of 5G mobile services over concerns that the
powerful signals could interfere with airplane systems.
Carriers across Asia, the Middle East and Europe canceled
flights to the United States or switched planes at the last
minute on Tuesday and Wednesday, disrupting travel for thousands
of passengers, over safety concerns caused by the 5G deployment.
But Japanese carriers said late on Wednesday they would
restore canceled flights and U.S. airlines said thousands of
planes were operating normally after two telecom carriers agreed
to delay the rollout at key airports.
The decision late on Tuesday by AT&T and Verizon
Communications to delay switching on new telecom masts
near key airports, just hours ahead of a wider U.S. rollout,
came too late to avoid a ripple of cancellations.
Much of the initial disruption hit the Boeing 777,
for decades a workhorse of long-distance air travel.
Dubai's Emirates, the world's largest international
passenger carrier and the largest 777 operator, hit out at
"mixed messages" as it suspended nine U.S. destinations.
The airline's longstanding president Tim Clark told CNN it
had not been aware of the extent of the safety concerns until
Tuesday and let rip at what he called it "one of the most
delinquent, utterly irresponsible" episodes in his career.
Some 32,000 Emirates passengers over the next three days
"will be completely inconvenienced as a result of flight
cancellations," Clark said, adding the message about safety
risks had "got through at a very, very late stage."
United Airlines, by contrast, said it was forecasting only
"minor disruptions" due to remaining 5G restrictions.
International carriers are particularly exposed because of
the lead time needed to prepare flights and pre-position crews
ready to fly intercontinental jets home, experts said.
"The last-minute postponement happened too late to stop the
crews being sent out for today's (return) flight. It just made
it a nightmare," said a pilot with a major European airline.
Shares in European long-haul carriers fell by 3-4%,
underperforming slightly weaker shares in U.S. airlines.
U.S. airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration have
warned that the 5G frequencies and transmission strength being
deployed in the United States could interfere with radio
altimeter readings needed for bad-weather landings on some jets.
Radio altimeters must give clear data on the height above
the ground on approach to help with automated landings and also
verify that a jet has landed before allowing reverse thrust.
U.S. President Joe Biden said he had "pushed as hard I can
to have the 5G folks hold up and abide by what was being
requested by the airlines until they could more modernize over
the years -- so 5G would not interfere with the potential of a
Boeing said it was working with all parties on a
"data-driven solution for the long-term."
Its 777 was last year the second-most used widebody plane on
flights to and from U.S. airports with around 210,000 flights,
behind the older 767, according to data from FlightRadar24.
European regulators say no risks have been found elsewhere.
The Federal Aviation Administration is frantically reviewing
guidance on which airports and planes are affected.
On Wednesday, it said it had issued new approvals allowing
some 62% of U.S. commercial airplanes to perform low-visibility
landings at airports where 5G is deployed, up from 45% cleared
Analysts said a slump in long-haul flying caused by pandemic
border restrictions would limit the immediate airline impact.
"It's the off season, so in January or February airlines
will be losing money and that's not counting the impact of the
pandemic. At the moment they are fighting for survival," said
James Halstead, managing partner at UK-based Aviation Strategy.
"Where it might hurt is that some airlines are using the
same long-haul aircraft to carry freight," he added.
Airlines reporting cancellations or model switches earlier
included Germany's Lufthansa, Korean Air Lines
, Singapore Airlines and British Airways -
all long-haul carriers with major freight operations.
(Additional reporting by Ed Copley and Josephine Mason in
London, Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai,
Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Lilian Wagdy and Moataz Mohamed in
Cairo, Abhijith Ganapavaram in Bengaluru, Duncan Miriri in
Editing by Mark Potter, Bernard Orr and Richard Pullin)