Sunday, December 8, 2013
By JESSICA GRESKO The Associated Press
WASHINGTON - Two federal agencies and Congress said Thursday that they were investigating an incident at Reagan National Airport in which commuter jets headed in opposite directions, one of which had taken off from Portland International Jetport, closed to within about 1,650 yards of one another at a combined speed of 436 mph.
"Such near misses and any operational errors are calls to action," Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told The Washington Post. "I'm asking our aviation subcommittee staff and FAA to thoroughly review what happened."
None of the commuter jets was ever on course to collide head-on with the others, federal officials said Thursday.
During a news conference, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood strongly disputed media reports characterizing what happened near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as a near-miss.
"At no point were the three aircraft on a head-to-head course. They were not on a collision course," said Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
The jet problem occurred Tuesday afternoon after a miscommunication between a manager at Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control and two traffic management coordinators at the airport, Huerta said. The exact nature of the miscommunication was not immediately clear, but there was apparently a failure on both ends to follow standard procedure.
Air traffic controllers at the time had been changing the direction for planes landing and taking off at the airport because of bad weather including several thunderstorms, the closest about 6 miles south. Controllers cleared two outbound flights to head in the direction of an incoming plane.
Both LaHood and Huerta praised the work of air traffic controllers to quickly set the US Airways-operated commuter planes on another path once they learned they were too close together. Huerta said the planes, which were carrying 192 passengers and crew members, were on different headings at different altitudes and thus never would have crashed.
All of the planes were equipped with collision avoidance systems, but none was activated Tuesday, Huerta said.
When asked by a reporter, LaHood refused to discuss what may have happened if the planes had not been diverted by the air traffic controller.
Federal guidelines require that commercial jets remain separated by at least 1,000 vertical feet and 3.5 lateral miles.
The agency said the landing plane, Flight 3329, had departed from Portland at 12:35 p.m. It came within 800 vertical feet and about nine-tenths of a lateral mile of one departing plane and 800 vertical feet and 2.4 lateral miles of a second outbound plane. The outbound planes were bound for Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio.
A former pilot and air traffic controller, who now heads the nonprofit Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Va., said the fact that onboard collision-avoidance alarm systems did not go off is "telling." If two planes are on an imminent collision course, that alarm would have sounded, and that system is very reliable, William Voss said.
An audio recording of communications between the landing plane from Portland and the air traffic control tower indicates confusion.
"We were clear at the river back there. What happened?" someone in the plane's cockpit says on the recording, obtained from LiveATC.com, a website that records air traffic communications.
The tower responds: "We're trying to figure this out, too. Stand by."
US Airways spokesman Todd Lehmacher said in an email that the airline is "currently investigating and working with the FAA to determine what occurred."
The airline has more than 230 daily departures from the airport to more than 70 cities.
In fiscal year 2010, the latest year for which statistics were available, the FAA recorded 1,887 operational errors, which it defines as a "situation in which an air traffic controller fails to maintain a safe distance between two or more aircraft, in the air or on the ground, or a safe distance from terrain, obstructions and certain airspace not designated for routine air travel." That was an increase from fiscal year 2009, in which the FAA recorded 1,234 such errors.
The airport had another high-profile safety incident in March 2011 when two airliners landed without assistance from the tower. Pilots were unable to raise the lone supervisor on duty at midnight, who later acknowledged he had fallen asleep. A second controller has since been added to the midnight shift at Reagan National.