House Aviation Committee Chairman Thomas E. Petri (R-Wis.) said: “As a frequent flier, the incident at Reagan National Airport certainly captured my attention. It is alarming every time we have a close call, but airline travel in the U.S. has an excellent safety record.”
In addition to the congressional review, the incident will receive independent scrutiny from the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that a lapse in communication Tuesday afternoon led to two commuter planes taking off from the runway at the same time that another plane was approaching from the opposite direction.
LaHood praised the air traffic controller who recognized that the planes were closing on each other at a high speed. The controller ordered one pilot to abort his approach to National and turn south. The three planes, all operated by US Airways, carried 192 passengers and crew members, the airline said. They all reached their destinations safely.
“We will get to the bottom of this, and we will take appropriate action to make sure miscommunication never happens again,” LaHood said at a news conference called to address the issue. “We need to interview these individuals to be sure before we say something definitive.”
He and Michael P. Huerta, the acting FAA administrator, said that the planes would not have collided head-on. “At no point were they on a head-to-head collision course,” LaHood said.
But LaHood twice declined to say what might have happened had the controller not ordered the inbound pilot to take evasive action.
“We’re not going to answer a hypothetical question,” LaHood said. “The answer is the controller did exactly what she should do. I’m going to call her and thank her for doing her job.”
A federal official with direct knowledge of the incident said that Huerta and LaHood were “mincing words.”
“They may not have been on a head-to-head,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the incident. “But when [the controller] turned the [inbound plane], they were on a quartering collision course. If you get hit head-on in an intersection versus T-boned, does it really feel any different?”
The plane that had taken off second from National also got too close to the plane ahead of it, officials said.
LaHood said that top FAA officials and the NTSB first learned of the incident when The Washington Post contacted the FAA on Wednesday.
As the investigations got underway, a more detailed picture was provided by federal officials with direct knowledge of the incident.