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August 2, 2012

Seconds from Impact: Air Traffic Control Mistake Almost Causes Three-Plane Collision

It was a close call on Tuesday afternoon, July 31, 2012, when two outbound commuter jets came within seconds of a midair collision with another flight coming in for a landing at Ronald Reagan National Airport in Washington, D.C. The planes were all operated by American Airlines and together carried 192 total passengers and crew members. The planes were only 12 seconds from impact when an air traffic controller at Reagan realized that the two outbound flights had mistakenly been cleared to head in the direction of the incoming flight. The planes each safely reached their final destinations.

The near miss was caused when Reagan Tower personnel reportedly failed to notify the necessary Reagan controllers after agreeing with the Warrenton, Va., en route air traffic controllers to reverse the flow of planes into the airport due to an approaching storm. According to an article in The Washington Post, "The federal official who reviewed the incident said what appeared to be a basic failure to communicate the planned change to everyone in the National tower was compounded by sloppy procedures."

Former U.S. Department of Transportation Inspector General and Motley Rice aviation attorney Mary Schiavo joined Washington, D.C.'s WTOP News Radio to comment on the incident and said that there can be several causes of this perfect storm of near disaster.  There should be consequences for performance failure, but she said that the FAA is lax in holding controllers accountable when they are sloppy and make mistakes, often simply making transfers after controllers are derelict in their duties. 

Also, although all scheduled passenger service commercial planes are equipped with collision avoidance equipment to prevent collisions or near collisions, not every plane has that same technology. Planes without such equipment fly in the same airspace as those with the life-saving technology. Collision avoidance should be required of all planes in the busiest airspace, but  the air traffic control system is in a state of transition. The FAA is building NextGen, the new air traffic control system that may be life-saving and permit more traffic is the congested air space, but it is not scheduled for completion until 2020. Until then, we are using antiquated systems to put more planes into airports like Reagan National that were not built to handle the volume of existing traffic.

This incident is just another among the several thousand recorded errors by air traffic controllers in recent years, with Reagan National being the site of some of the more major incidents, including one last year involving an air traffic controller supervisor who was asleep while on duty.

Learn more about Motley Rice's aviation lawyers and how they work to protect passenger rights and fight on behalf of victims' family members and injured plane crash survivors.