WASHINGTON — None of the commuter jets that flew too close together near Washington 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 the incident 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 incident happened Tuesday because of a miscommunication between a manager at Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control and two traffic management coordinators at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Huerta said. Officials are investigating. The exact nature of the miscommunication was not immediately clear, but there apparently was a failure on both ends to follow standard procedure.
The mishap happened at a time when traffic controllers had been changing the direction planes were landing and taking off at the airport because of bad weather including several thunderstorms, the closest about six miles south.
Both LaHood and Huerta praised the work of air traffic controllers to quickly set the US Airways planes on another path once they learned they were too close together. Huerta said the planes 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 by the incident, 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, which departed from Portland, Maine, 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 the second plane. The other planes had been departing for Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio.
In fiscal year 2010, the latest year for which statistics were available, the FAA recorded 1,887 operational errors, which the agency 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.
An audio recording of communications between the landing plane and the air traffic control tower at the airport shows confusion as the flight is given instructions on landing.
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.