Miscommunications of colossal proportions between air traffic controllers at Washington National Airport (DCA) and the Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control (PCT) led to two near mid-air collisions (NMAC’s) involving three US Airways commuter jets July 31st.
The incidents occurred as controllers were changing runways due to an approaching storm. While it is not clear whether the tower or approach control initiated the runway change, what is clear is that approach controllers in Warrenton, VA were clearing aircraft for approach to runways where tower controllers were clearing aircraft for takeoff in the opposite direction.
It is no surprise when an error occurs for the FAA to trot out one if its spokespersons to spout their tired old mantra that “Safety was never
compromised,” but this error was so serious that FAA Acting Administrator, Michael Huerta, and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood sprung into action. Incredibly, Secretary LaHood stated, “It wasn’t a near miss.” Say again, Mr. Secretary! Surely the pilots and passengers on board the aircraft involved would beg to differ.
In the first NMAC, the jets came within one mile horizontally and eight hundred feet vertically and, in the second, the aircraft came within two-and-a-half miles horizontally and eight hundred feet vertically. The FAA’s own separation standards dictate that aircraft remain separated by three miles horizontally and one thousand feet vertically.
Unfortunately, problems at DC area air traffic facilities are nothing new. In March 2011, a supervisor working alone on the mid-shift at DCA fell asleep for an estimated twenty-four minutes while two commercial aircraft, one American Airlines and one United Airlines, were attempting to land. At PCT, operational errors doubled in 2010 and annual error totals have been exceeded nearly every year since the facility began operations in 2003.
Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of this latest error is that FAA and transportation officials reportedly learned of the incident through the media instead of through its internal channels.