By Susan Heavey and Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three U.S. Airways flights came too close to one another this week over Washington's Reagan National Airport because of "miscommunication" between the control tower and a regional hub, U.S. transportation officials said Thursday.
Two of the regional commuter jets took off in the direction of an incoming flight with inadequate separation in the incident on Tuesday afternoon, federal officials said.
Supervisors at both the control tower and the routing hub known as Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control, or TRACON, apparently failed to follow standard procedures for reversing the airport's traffic flow, said Michael Huerta, acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration, which operates the nation's air traffic control system.
At issue was a routine maneuver to keep runways for departures facing into the wind, he said.
Huerta and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a Reagan National Airport news conference that none of the planes had been on a collision course with another, but that standard separation distances -- 1,000 feet vertically and three nautical miles laterally -- had been breached.
"There was unclear communication that took place about the correct traffic flow and the runway configuration at Reagan National," Huerta said. "And it appears that in both instances there was failure to follow standard procedure, both at Reagan National tower and at Potomac TRACON," which controls approaches and departures in the region's airspace.
As a result, the flights departing Reagan were not immediately turned in the new direction after the about-face.
LaHood also disclosed that authorities learned about the incident from a reporter, not through normal internal channels.
"We should have had this reported to us from our people. But we're going to do an investigation and find out why it wasn't," he said.
An alert controller in the tower caught the problem and quickly took corrective action. She steered to the south inbound Republic Airlines flight 3329, which had flown within 800 feet vertically and .82 miles of Chautauqua Airlines 3071, which had been taking off to the north, they said.
Republic flight 3329 circled west of the airport and landed without incident. Chautauqua 3071 continued to a safe landing at its Columbus, Ohio, destination, Huerta added.
A second jet departing from Reagan, Republic 3467, came within 2.07 miles and 800 feet vertically of the inbound flight before continuing to its Kansas City destination where it landed without incident, he said.
Republic Airways Holdings owns both Republic Airlines and Chautauqua. All three planes were operating as U.S. Airways flights.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which has made reducing air traffic controller errors and improving runway safety a top priority, each said it will investigate.
US Airways did not immediately provide details on the number of passengers aboard the aircraft.
The close call near Washington was the latest in a string of incidents recently that highlight concerns over air traffic safety.
A transcript of the conversation between the pilots and the air traffic controllers at the airport showed 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. Stand by," one controller responded.
12 SECONDS FROM CRASH
The Washington Post, the first to report the incident, said in its Thursday editions 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 (701 kilometers per hour) -- a rate that put them just 12 seconds away from a crash, it reported.
LaHood and Huerta rejected any suggestion that any of the aircraft had been on a collision course.
"They were on different headings at different altitudes," so they would not have collided, Huerta said.
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.
(Additional reporting by Ian Simpson in Washington and Karen Jacobs in Atlanta; Editing by Fred Barbash and Anthony Boadle)