WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Officials said on Thursday they are investigating "miscommunication" this week that led three US Airways planes -- two outbound and one inbound -- to veer unacceptably close to each other over Washington's Reagan National Airport.
In a statement about the incident, the Federal Aviation Administration said bad weather south of the nation's capital on Tuesday forced controllers to divert planes to a different runway.
"During the switchover of operations, miscommunication ... led to a loss of the required separation between two regional jets departing from Runway 1 and a regional jet inbound for Runway 19," the FAA said in a statement. The agency plans to hold a press briefing on the incident later on Thursday.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has made reducing air traffic controller errors and improving runway safety a top priority, said it will investigate.
Tuesday's incident, first reported by The Washington Post, took place just after 2 p.m. EDT, according to the FAA. US Airways said the three flights all arrived at their final destinations safely but gave no other details.
The close call is the latest in a series of serious and embarrassing incidents recently that highlight concerns over air traffic safety.
"This error ... is the worst kind of air traffic control error that you can have, directing one plane into the path of another or in this case two airplanes," David Stempler, an aviation expert and head of the advocacy group Air Travelers Association. "This must be investigated thoroughly and the air traffic controllers severely disciplined or terminated."
A transcript of the conversation between the pilots and the air traffic controllers at the airport in Tuesday's mishap shows confusion on both sides.
"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. Standby," one controller responded.
Onboard the aircrafts were 192 passengers and crew members, according to the newspaper.
"The FAA is investigating the incident and will take appropriate action to address the miscommunication," the FAA said.
12 SECONDS FROM CRASH
The Washington Post in its report on Thursday said 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 -- a rate that put them just 12 seconds away from a crash, it reported. The FAA could not immediately confirm those details.
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 Mississippi.
(Reporting By Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Ian Simpson and Jim Wolf in Washington, and Karen Jacobs in Atlanta; Editing by Fred Barbash and Cynthia Osterman)
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