* US Airways planes caught in traffic "switch over" on
* Two planes took off in direction of a landing flight
* FAA calls incident a "miscommunication" - NTSB to
* Pilot, controller conversation shows confusion
By Susan Heavey and Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, Aug 2 Three U.S. Airways flights
came too close to one another this week over Washington's Reagan
National Airport because of "miscommunication" between the
control tower and a regional hub, U.S. transportation officials
Two of the regional commuter jets took off in the direction
of an incoming flight with inadequate separation in the incident
on Tuesday afternoon, federal officials said.
Supervisors at both the control tower and the routing hub
known as Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON,
apparently failed to follow standard procedures for reversing
the airport's traffic flow, said Michael Huerta, acting head of
the Federal Aviation Administration, which operates the nation's
air traffic control system.
At issue was a routine maneuver to keep runways for
departures facing into the wind, he said.
Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a Reagan
National Airport news conference that none of the planes had
been on a collision course with another, but that standard
separation distances -- 1,000 feet vertically and three nautical
miles laterally -- had been breached.
"There was unclear communication that took place about the
correct traffic flow and the runway configuration at Reagan
National," Huerta said. "And it appears that in both instances
there was failure to follow standard procedure, both at Reagan
National tower and at Potomac TRACON," which controls approaches
and departures in the region's airspace.
As a result, the flights departing Reagan were not
immediately turned in the new direction after the about-face.
LaHood also disclosed that authorities learned about the
incident from a reporter, not through normal internal channels.
"We should have had this reported to us from our people. But
we're going to do an investigation and find out why it wasn't,"
An alert controller in the tower caught the problem and
quickly took corrective action. She steered to the south inbound
Republic Airlines flight 3329, which had flown within 800 feet
vertically and .82 miles of Chautauqua Airlines 3071, which had
been taking off to the north, they said.
Republic flight 3329 circled west of the airport and landed
without incident. Chautauqua 3071 continued to a safe landing at
its Columbus, Ohio, destination, Huerta added.
A second jet departing from Reagan, Republic 3467, came
within 2.07 miles and 800 feet vertically of the inbound flight
before continuing to its Kansas City destination where it landed
without incident, he said.
Republic Airways Holdings owns both Republic
Airlines and Chautauqua. All three planes were operating as U.S.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB),
which has made reducing air traffic controller errors and
improving runway safety a top priority, each said it will
US Airways did not immediately provide details on the number
of passengers aboard the aircraft.
The close call near Washington was the latest in a string of
incidents recently that highlight concerns over air traffic
A transcript of the conversation between the pilots and the
air traffic controllers at the airport showed confusion on both
"Uh, we were cleared at the river back there. What
happened?" the pilot of one incoming flight said, according to
the transcript of the FAA recording CBS News obtained from
LiveATC.net, a website devoted to live air traffic feeds.
"We're, we're trying to figure this out too. Stand by," one
12 SECONDS FROM CRASH
The Washington Post, the first to report the incident, said
in its Thursday editions the commuter jets "came within seconds
of a midair collision," citing a federal official familiar with
the incident. At one point, two planes were just 1.4 miles apart
and traveling at 436 miles per hour (701 kilometers per hour) --
a rate that put them just 12 seconds away from a crash, it
LaHood and Huerta rejected any suggestion that any of the
aircraft had been on a collision course.
"They were on different headings at different altitudes," so
they would not have collided, Huerta said.
Reagan airport, on the Potomac River a few miles from the
Pentagon, is one of three serving the Washington region.
In March last year, a lone controller fell asleep on the
midnight shift at the airport with two jetliners en route. The
two flights landed without incident.
Earlier this year, air traffic controller error was cited in
a near-miss of a commuter jet and a small plane in