With the Capitol in the background, a US Airways airplane makes its final approach at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2012. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday that none of the three commuter jets that flew to close together near Washington was ever on course to collide head-on with the others. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
WASHINGTON (AP) -- None of the commuter jets that flew too close together near Washington on Tuesday 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.
However, the FAA said in a statement it "is investigating the incident and will take appropriate action to address the miscommunication." The National Transportation Safety Board said it, too, is reviewing what happened.
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 planes were 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.
"There's no doubt there was an error," said Florida aviation consultant Patrick McCormick, who worked in air traffic control for 35 years. He said that when you have planes departing in the direction of arriving planes, "there's no doubt something went terribly wrong."
"That can't happen with a runway change," he said.
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, 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 a second outbound plane. The outbound planes were bound for Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio.
An audio recording of communications between the landing plane and the air traffic control tower indicates confusion as the flight is given instructions on landing.
"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."
The landing flight then advises the tower that the plane doesn't have much fuel left: "We gotta get on the ground here pretty quick," a man says.
US Airways spokesman Todd Lehmacher said in an email that the airline is "currently investigating and working with the FAA to determine what occurred."