The world’s largest airline trade body said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is low-balling the costs to retrofit airplane altimeters so that they’re C-band tolerant.

Last month, the FAA estimated the total price tag to modify radio altimeters was just $26 million, but the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said it’s more likely to cost $637.6 million. Reuters reported the new figure on Thursday.

The FAA is proposing that all passenger and cargo aircraft in the U.S. have C-band tolerant radio altimeters or approved filters by early next year. Concerns about 5G C-band service interfering with airplane altimeters led to disruptions at some U.S. airports last year involving international carriers, Reuters noted.

The IATA said the FAA should include the 6,000 aircraft that have already been upgraded or retrofitted in its cost calculations as well as the modifications that need to be made by non-U.S. registered aircraft that serve the U.S. It also would like to see an updated list of 5G-tolerant radio altimeters by make, model, part number and, as appropriate, dash number, showing the altimeters that are deemed compliant by the FAA.

IATA, which represents the interests of some 300 airlines globally, said it supports the collective effort of the FAA and the commercial airline industry to address the safety challenge posed by broadband operations in the 3.7-3.98 GHz frequency band, commonly referred to as the C-band.

But it clearly has an axe to grind.

“It is unfortunate that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as well as AT&T and Verizon refused to accept that any limitations on the 5G spectrum signal around airports were necessary to ensure the continued safe operation of commercial aviation,” the IATA told the FAA in its filing. “This is despite the fact that IATA and other industry representatives raised these safety and interference concerns long before the auction of this spectrum. Now, the aviation industry, rather than the FCC or the telecommunications companies, is being told to pay to upgrade its certified radio altimeters. The unfairness of this cannot be overstated.”

Fierce reached out to AT&T and Verizon and they declined to comment.

CTIA provided the following statement: “The wireless industry continues to work collaboratively with all stakeholders and supports the FAA’s schedule for altimeter upgrades.”

Wireless carriers spent more than $80 billion on C-band spectrum in the FCC’s 2021 auction. The FCC auctioned the spectrum with a 220-megahertz guard band designed to protect nearby incumbents. But that did not satisfy the aviation community, and Verizon and AT&T agreed to multiple delays in their C-band deployments near airports, as well as modifications to equipment.   

Airlines want more time

Public statements made by the Air Line Pilots Association indicate airlines are making good progress in updating their altimeters, but Airlines for America (A4A) in a filing on Friday urged the FAA to extend deadlines to June 30, 2024, saying supply chain issues are making updates difficult.

“Disrupting the National Airspace System (NAS) during the busiest travel season of the year is ill-advised and unnecessary,” A4A said. 

The FAA’s proposal imposes retrofit deadlines that are not achievable, forcing the airline industry to rely on actions by the same telecom companies that “ignored our repeated warnings about potential 5G radio altimeter interference,” IATA said. “While we appreciate the dilemma to which the FCC has subjected the FAA, the airline industry should not have to pay an exorbitant price for the government’s failure in this matter,” IATA concluded. 

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