The Federal Aviation Administration has launched an investigation into how three jets barely avoided a midair collision over Washington’s Reagan National Airport earlier this week, the latest high-profile error in a system that has recorded thousands of mistakes by air traffic controllers in recent years.
The incident involving three planes, all operated by US Airways, took place Tuesday around 2 p.m. EDT The aircraft were carrying a combined 192 passengers and crew, according to the Washington Post, which first reported the story.
It occurred when air traffic controllers sent two outbound planes toward another aircraft coming in for a landing. The FAA said bad weather prompted the controllers to switch the routes and that the miscommunication “led to a loss of the required separation” among the planes.
In a statement sent to reporters, the FAA said it would take “appropriate action to address the miscommunication,” which was within seconds of causing a major crash.
The agency said preliminary information indicated that the landing plane came within 500 vertical feet and 1.7 lateral miles of one departing plane and 600 vertical feet and 2.8 lateral miles of the second plane. Standard separation requirements are 1,000 vertical feet and 3.5 lateral miles.
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 over 70 cities.
Because the airport serves the nation’s capital, problems there take on a special urgency. Last year, for example, reports of controllers sleeping during the night hours led to an investigation that spread to other airports, where it was found that controllers also took naps during overnight shifts. That controversy contributed to the ouster of the head of the FAA’s air traffic control organization.
In 2010, an airliner carrying Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin was forced to swerve to avoid another jet, prompting a look by authorities at controller errors at Reagan National.
There was also an investigation of a minor error involving a plane carrying Michelle Obama and Jill Biden.
The FAA reported more than 1,200 operational errors across the nation in fiscal year 2009, and almost 1,900 such incidents in 2010. Most involved situations in which controllers permitted planes to get too close to each other, but there was little real risk to passengers.
Nonetheless, serious problems have been reported to the National Transportation Safety Board, including near-misses in Houston, San Francisco, Chicago and Anchorage.