WASHINGTON (AP) — The Federal Aviation Administration halted operations that let U.S. airports reverse the flow of some traffic to and from runways on Tuesday, one week after a miscommunication among air traffic controllers nearly caused the collision of three commuter planes near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
No commercial airports will be able to use the procedure, in which controllers direct some planes to take off and land from the opposite of the usual direction, until a standardized procedure can be put in place, aviation officials said. There is no national standard for the procedure, although airports follow their own procedures.
The FAA expects to have new procedures in place within a month, said FAA Chief Operating Officer J. David Grizzle. In the meantime, airports can only use the procedure in emergencies.
The FAA made the change after a July 31 incident at Reagan National Airport involving three U.S. Airways commuter flights that got too close to one another. At the time of the incident, air traffic controllers had been changing the direction planes were landing and taking off at the airport because of bad weather developing to the airport's south.
Because of an apparent miscommunication, controllers improperly cleared two outbound flights to head in the direction of an incoming plane. As a result, the planes came closer than the required 1,000 vertical feet and 3.5 lateral miles separation.
The miscommunication occurred between a regional air traffic control center in Virginia that guides planes into area airports and controllers in the tower at Reagan. The FAA said Tuesday that regional controllers had intended for only few planes — not all planes — to land in the opposite direction. After the incident was resolved, controllers eventually reversed traffic flow for the entire airport.
"In light of these preliminary findings, out of an abundance of caution, there are some immediate steps we are taking," Grizzle wrote in a memo to Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
One major issue raised by the incident is that managers at the regional control center were also performing administrative tasks, such as staff scheduling, even when traffic was heavy or complex and required their undivided attention. Grizzle said the FAA will ensure that in the future, managers are not multitasking while handling complicated air traffic.
The FAA also said it will work with air traffic controllers to provide additional resources, including more radar training, to ensure planes don't come too close to one another.
Huerta said last week that the planes were on different headings and at different altitudes, and would not have crashed. The three planes were carrying 192 passengers and crew.
The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting a separate investigation into the incident.