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DOT, FAA: 3 jets in close call never at risk of colliding

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood spoke to NBC Nightly News about a close call at Washington Reagan National Airport. Two US Airways commuter planes were cleared to take off in the wrong direction, and headed toward a third plane that was preparing to land at the airport. The planes avoided collision but passed too close for federal minimum standards. NBC's Pete Williams reports.

Updated at 4:25 p.m. ET -- Transportation officials on Thursday acknowledged a “loss of separation” involving three US Airways regional jets at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on Tuesday, but insisted the aircraft were never on a collision course.

“At no point were these planes on a head-to-head collision point,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told reporters on Thursday.

Michael Huerta, head of the Federal Aviation Administration, said the incident occurred because of a miscommunication between a manager at Potomac Tracon — the region's radar control facility — and traffic management coordinators at Reagan National.

LaHood and Huerta credited a tower controller at Reagan National who recognized a problem and handled the situation.

Potomac Tracon altered traffic flow at Reagan National because of bad weather, FAA said in a statement, which "led to a loss of the required separation between two regional jets" departing from the same runway and a third regional jet that was bound for Reagan National. The agency is investigating "and will take appropriate action to address the miscommunication."

All of the planes were equipped with collision avoidance systems, but none was activated by the incident, 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.

As TODAY's Natalie Morales reports, federal officials are investigating why air traffic controllers at Washington National Airport instructed two planes to take off in the path of a landing jet.

Federal guidelines require that commercial jets remain separated by at least 1,000 vertical feet and 3.5 lateral miles.

The agency said the landing plane, which departed from Portland, Maine, came within 800 vertical feet and about nine-tenths of a lateral mile of one departing plane and 800 vertical feet and 2.4 lateral miles of the second plane. The other planes had been departing for Kansas City and Columbus, Ohio. The planes all reached their destinations safely.

On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported the three US Airways jets carrying 192 passengers and crew members came within seconds of a midair collision around 2 p.m. ET on Tuesday, citing federal officials with direct knowledge of the incident.

The Post report cited a discussion between a pilot and an air traffic controller:

“Are you with me?” the tower controller asked the inbound pilot, checking to see whether he was tuned to her radio frequency. When the pilot acknowledged her, she ordered him to make an abrupt turn to the south to avoid the other two planes.

“We were cleared [for landing] at the river there,” the pilot said after breaking off the approach northwest of the airport. “What happened?”

After a pause, the controller said, “Stand by, we’re trying to figure this out.”

As she directed him to make a loop around the airport for a second landing attempt the pilot cautioned: “We really don’t have enough fuel here for this. We have to get on the ground pretty quick.”

In fiscal year 2010, the FAA recorded 1,887 operational errors, which the agency 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.

US Airways has more than 230 daily departures from the airport to over 70 cities. U.S. lawmakers frequently fly in and out of the airport, and some members of Congress took notice of the close call. 

"Such near misses and any operational errors are calls to action," said Rep. John L. Mica, R-Fla., chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. 

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 Regan 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 e-mail. 

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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