One hundred and ninety two passengers and crew on board three United States passenger jets had a narrow escape when their aircraft came within seconds of a midair collision at Reagan National Airport in Washington on Tuesday, a media report said on Thursday.
The three planes, all operated by US Airways, averted a collision after confused air traffic controllers launched two outbound flights directly at another plane coming in to land, the Washington Post reported.
The problem occurred as a number of inbound planes were queued up to turn above Mount Vernon, fly north over the Potomac River and land on the airport's main runway. But an approaching storm caused a significant wind shift, and the air traffic control centre in Warrenton wanted to reverse the flow of planes into the airport, turning them north of Rosslyn and routing them south along the river to land from the opposite direction.
The Warrenton controllers communicated the plan to the controller tower at Reagan National Airport.
"The tower agreed, but they didn't pass it on to all the people they needed to pass it on to," the Post quoted a federal official familiar with the incident as saying.
As a result, an incoming flight that had been cleared to land was flying head-on at two planes that had just taken off. The inbound plane and the first of the outbound planes were closing the 1.4 miles between them at a combined speed of 436 mph, a rate that meant they were about 12 seconds from impact when the tower controller recognised her mistake, it said.
Hours after being alerted to the incident by paper, the Federal Aviation Administration's public affairs office issued a statement saying that it is investigating the matter and will take appropriate action to address the miscommunication.
The federal official who reviewed the incident said what appeared to be a basic failure to communicate the planned change to everyone in the Reagan National Airport tower was compounded by sloppy procedures.
"This is a pretty big screw-up for a major airport," the official was quoted as saying.