During a news conference, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood strongly disputed media reports characterizing what happened near Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport as a near-miss.
"At no point were the three aircraft on a head-to-head course. They were not on a collision course," said Michael Huerta, administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration.
However, the FAA said in a statement it "is investigating the incident and will take appropriate action to address the miscommunication." The National Transportation Safety Board said it, too, is reviewing what happened.
The jet problem occurred Tuesday afternoon after a miscommunication between a manager at Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control and two traffic management coordinators at the airport, Huerta said. The exact nature of the miscommunication was not immediately clear, but there was apparently a failure on both ends to follow standard procedure.
Air traffic controllers at the time had been changing the direction planes were landing and taking off at the airport because of bad weather including several thunderstorms, the closest about 6 miles (10 kilometers) south. Controllers cleared two outbound flights to head in the direction of an incoming plane.
"There's no doubt there was an error," said Florida aviation consultant Patrick McCormick, who worked in air traffic control for 35 years. He said that when you have planes departing in the direction of arriving planes, "there's no doubt something went terribly wrong."
"That can't happen with a runway change," he said.
Both LaHood and Huerta praised the work of air traffic controllers to quickly set the US Airways-operated commuter planes on another path once they learned they were too close together. Huerta said the planes, which were carrying 192 passengers and crew members, were on different headings at different altitudes and thus never would have crashed.
All of the planes were equipped with collision avoidance systems, but none was activated Tuesday, Huerta said.
When asked by a reporter, LaHood refused to discuss what may have happened if the planes had not been diverted by the air traffic controller.
Federal guidelines require that commercial jets remain separated by at least 1,000 vertical feet (304.8 meters) and 3.5 lateral miles (5.63 kilometers).
The agency said the landing plane, which departed from Portland, Maine, came within 800 vertical feet (244 meters) and about nine-tenths of a lateral mile of one departing plane and 800 vertical feet (244 meters) and 2.4 lateral miles (3.9 kilometers) of a second outbound plane. The outbound planes were bound for Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio.
William Voss, a former pilot and air traffic controller who now heads the non-profit Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia, said the fact that onboard collision-avoidance alarm systems did not go off is "telling." If two planes are on an imminent collision course, that alarm would have sounded, and that system is very reliable.
"It's kind of like the difference between a speeding ticket and reckless driving. It's definitely more in the speeding ticket category," Voss said of Tuesday's incident.
Voss said changing the arrival and departure directions at an airport is a "complicated situation," one of the most difficult procedures air traffic control does. That's especially so at Reagan National, in part because it's such a busy airport.
Pilots also must adhere to flight restrictions around the nation's capital.
An audio recording of communications between the landing plane and the air traffic control tower indicates confusion as the flight is given instructions on landing.
"We were clear at the river back there. What happened?" someone in the plane's cockpit says on the recording, obtained from LiveATC.com, a website that records air traffic communications.
The tower responds: "We're trying to figure this out, too. Stand by."
The landing flight then advises the tower that the plane doesn't have much fuel left: "We gotta get on the ground here pretty quick," a man says.
US Airways spokesman Todd Lehmacher said in an email that the airline is "currently investigating and working with the FAA to determine what occurred."
The airline has more than 230 daily departures from the airport to more than 70 cities.
In fiscal year 2010, the latest year for which statistics were available, the FAA recorded 1,887 operational errors, which it defines as a "situation in which an air traffic controller fails to maintain a safe distance between two or more aircraft, in the air or on the ground, or a safe distance from terrain, obstructions and certain airspace not designated for routine air travel." That was an increase from fiscal year 2009, in which the FAA recorded 1,234 such errors.
Such incidents might be avoided with full implementation of NextGen, the FAA's program for modernizing air traffic control, said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a Washington-based think tank.
The NextGen plans include equipping planes with GPS technology that would continually broadcast their exact positions, not just to air traffic controllers, but to other similarly equipped aircraft within hundreds of miles. Pilots would be able to see on cockpit displays where they are in relation to other planes and what the flight plans are for those other aircraft.
"It might have helped pilots in the air see what might have happened sooner than they did," Schank said.
He said NextGen implementation has been slow because aircraft makers and airlines don't feel assured they'll get a return for investing in the technology.
The airport had another high-profile safety incident in March 2011 when two airliners landed without assistance from the tower. Pilots were unable to raise the lone supervisor on duty at midnight. The supervisor later acknowledged he had fallen asleep. A second controller has since been added to the midnight shift at Reagan National.
In 2010, U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin was aboard a United flight involved in a near-collision at Reagan National. He said more should be done to improve the nation's air traffic control policy and safety.
"Only better training and disciplinary action for those who violate the rules will solve the problem," Sensenbrenner said in an email.
McCormick, the aviation consultant, said aviation at large airports is safer than ever before but that he's concerned the FAA has recently lost the vast majority of its senior controllers. As for Tuesday's incident, he said investigators need to determine "where the breakdown was and mistake was made and provide some extra training and make changes that prevent it from happening again."