LaHood: Planes at DC airport were never in danger of colliding

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said Thursday that a group of airplanes that came too close to one another this week at a Washington, D.C., airport were never in danger of colliding, even as he sought to smooth fears about the safety of the national aviation system.

The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed on Thursday that it was investigating a regional airplane being cleared to land on a runway at Ronald Reagan National Airport Wednesday from which two other jets were preparing to take off.

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LaHood told reporters in a sometimes-combative news conference that the planes were never close to colliding with each other. 

"At no point were these planes on a collision course," LaHood said. "There was never going to be a head-to-head collision."

LaHood explained there was just a "loss of separation" between the airplanes. But he quickly added that thanks to the "good work" of an air traffic controller in Reagan airport's flight tower, "the planes landed safely at their destinations."

Lawmakers in Congress said Thursday that they were going to join the FAA in looking into the incident, however.

"Such near misses and any operational errors are calls to action,” House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-Fla.) said in a statement released by his office. “I’m asking our Aviation Subcommittee staff and FAA to thoroughly review what happened.”

“As a frequent flyer, the incident at Reagan National Airport certainly captured my attention,” the chairman of the House aviation subcommittee, Rep. Tom Petri (R-Wis.), added.

However, Petri cautioned that it was still safe to fly on U.S. airlines.

"It is alarming every time we have a close call, but airline travel in the U.S. has an excellent safety record," he said. "Safety will continue to improve as we proceed with the modernization of the air traffic control system, which is already under way.”

LaHood said Thursday that the airplanes involved in the incident were being operated by regional airlines for U.S. Airways.

Interim FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the jets came within 800 feet of one another vertically — the legal limit is 1,000 — but that said the planes were never in danger of colliding.

"We have a separation standard to maintain a safe distance between airplanes," said Huerta, whose confirmation to a full-term appointment to lead the FAA is being held up in the Senate.

"All three of these planes were equipped with collision avoidance technology and at no point was the collision warning activated," Huerta continued.

In addition to requiring airplanes to keep a distance from one another of 1,000 feet vertically, the FAA requires jets to remain three miles apart horizontally at all times to prevent mid-air collisions.

LaHood said the FAA's investigation of the incident at Reagan would "get to the bottom of this and make sure miscommunication like this never happens again."    

He admitted that the Transportation Department was first notified of the Reagan airport incident by a question from a news reporter, despite a program to allow air traffic controllers to voluntary report mistakes without retribution.

Republicans in Congress have sharply criticized the program, named the Air Traffic Safety Action Program, for being too lenient and not reducing air traffic control errors.

LaHood said Thursday that the program should have resulted in the Transportation Department receiving word of the errors at Reagan airport from within its own ranks. 

"We should've had this reported to us by our people, but we're investigating why that didn't happen," he said.

LaHood stressed the safety record of the American aviation industry, despite the air traffic control mix-up on Tuesday.

"Nobody cares more about safety than the Department of Transportation," he said. "Everything we do is about safety."

The FAA's air traffic controllers have been maligned in the last year for errors and reports of being caught sleeping on the job.

Last year, a plane carrying first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden was forced to abort an attempted landing at Andrews Air Force base in the Washington, D.C., suburbs because it was prematurely cleared to land.

The FAA's air traffic director resigned last April after a string of incidents involving misconduct among flight tower employees, including reports of one controller in Ohio being caught watching a movie by a nearby airplane's radio dispatch system.

But LaHood said Thursday that he was grateful to the controller who noticed the airplanes at Reagan were coming too close to one another.

"I'm going to call her and thank her for doing her job," he said.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which is independent of the FAA and the Department of Transportation, has also said it will investigate the incident at Reagan, which is the closest airport to the Washington, D.C., city limits.