Washington • The Federal Aviation Administration will bar airports nationwide from using a traffic-reversing operation that led to a close call last week at an airport near the nation’s capital.
No commercial airports will be able to use the maneuver, 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 maneuver, 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 maneuver — known as "opposite-direction operations" — in emergencies.
The FAA made the change after a July 31 incident at Ronald Reagan Washington 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. The head of the FAA said last week that the planes, which were carrying 192 passengers and crew, were on different headings and at different altitudes, and would not have crashed. However, 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 a 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 two-page memo to Acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta.
There are more than 500 commercial airports in the U.S., but the FAA is still determining how many of those airports will be impacted by the suspension.
Another 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.
William Voss, a former pilot and air traffic controller who heads the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation, said the FAA’s decision to temporarily prohibit the traffic-reversing operation would not cause delays or even major changes for airports. It’s common for airports to completely change the direction of arrivals and departures one or more times a day, he said. But deciding to land just a few planes in the opposite direction, as was the case in the Reagan incident, is rare and seldom encouraged — one possible reason that no national standard had yet been put in place.
In addition to creating new procedures, the FAA also said it is working with the National Air Traffic Controllers Association, a labor union that represents controllers, to determine what additional training, including more radar training, is necessary to ensure planes don’t come too close to one another.
The National Transportation Safety Board is conducting a separate investigation into the incident.
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