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At a critical time, 5G wireless disruptions hit regional airlines

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The activation of 5G wireless service over the last week did not result in the widespread flight disruptions that many airlines had feared, but it did hurt some regional ones. They had to cancel many flights at smaller airports at a time when they're already struggling with severe staffing shortages. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: When you're flying on a regional airline, you might not even know it. You likely booked the flight on a carrier like American, Delta or United. The pilots and flight attendants are dressed in those airlines' uniforms, and the small planes are called United Express or American Eagle. But they're actually 17 separate airlines, including SkyWest, Horizon, Endeavor and Republic, among others. Regional Airline Association CEO Faye Malarkey Black says they fly as partners to the big carriers.

FAYE MALARKEY BLACK: They're too large to serve smaller airports that have fewer passengers traveling each day each way. So they partner with regional airlines. And regionals specialize in operating smaller regional aircraft that's the right size to reach those customers that are traveling from smaller and often rural towns.

SCHAPER: Malarkey Black says though they're not as well-known, regional airlines fly 43% of the nation's departures, reaching 94% of the country. In fact, regionals fly the only commercial air service to two-thirds of U.S. airports. But they were largely left out of a deal with the FAA and Verizon and AT&T over how to minimize possible 5G interference with some airplane avionics.

MALARKEY BLACK: We do have a feeling and a sense that when this deal was cut, it was cut in consultation with the bigger users of the system. And for that reason, it didn't meet our needs.

SCHAPER: So while the FAA now says 90% of commercial aircraft are not susceptible to 5G interference, most of the airplanes not yet cleared to land at some airports in bad weather are regional jets like the Embraer E175, the only commercial jet to fly into and out of Paine Field north of Seattle.

BRETT SMITH: Oh, it's always sunny in Seattle.

SCHAPER: That's Brett Smith, CEO of the company that runs Paine Field. And he's obviously joking.

SMITH: No, unfortunately, this time of year, it rains a lot. And we've had our fair share of rain over the past few months.

SCHAPER: Smith says while in the past, frequent rain and dense fog might delay some flights and cancel a few, it's never caused every single flight at his airport to be canceled until this week. All 24 scheduled commercial flights on both Monday and Tuesday were scrapped because the FAA won't allow E175s to land there in low visibility.

SMITH: It's massively frustrating. This should not have happened.

SCHAPER: All of the flights canceled at Paine Field are operated by Horizon Air, which is owned by and flies exclusively for Alaska Airlines. Horizon CEO Joe Sprague says if the FAA doesn't approve regional jets like the one his airline flies soon, even more smaller airports, airlines and travelers will be affected.

JOE SPRAGUE: The activation of 5G towers near airports that took place last week was just the initial wave that AT&T and Verizon are planning. And there are multiple subsequent waves of activations, with each one likely to include smaller and smaller communities.

SCHAPER: The problems with 5G come as regional airlines are losing pilots and other critical staff to the bigger airlines. The Regional Airline Association's Faye Malarkey Black says that's leading major airlines to cut some regional service.

MALARKEY BLACK: When we're dealing with a scarcity i n workforce, that is forcing a capacity retraction. And history tells us that any time the major airlines are forced to retract capacity, that the smallest communities get hit first and worst. And we're seeing that now with a pilot shortage.

SCHAPER: The pandemic already forced four regional airlines to go out of business. To avoid further disruptions, the regional carriers are asking the FAA and the telecom companies to find a way to keep regional jets flying into small airports. David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF PACHYMAN'S "EL BENSON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.