US officials say two regional jets that departed Washington Reagan National airport the afternoon of 31 July were at no time on a head-on collision course with an inbound aircraft coming the opposite direction, countering earlier media reports about the incident.
"At no point were these planes on a head to head collision course," says US Department of Transportation secretary Ray LaHood. "There was a loss of separation - it shouldn't have happened. But a well-trained controller at the [Reagan National] tower immediately recognized the situation and worked quickly to fix it."
Acting Federal Aviation Administrator Michael Huerta, during the 2 August press conference, said separation between two of the regional jets - an inbound Republic Airlines flight and an outbound Chautauqua airlines aircraft - should have been at least 3nm (5.6km) laterally and 1,000ft (305m) vertically. Instead the two aircraft came within 0.82nm laterally and 800ft vertically, says Huerta.
A second departing regional jet, Republic airlines flight 3467, came within 2.07nm laterally and 800ft vertically of the inbound Republic airlines aircraft.
"Two departing aircraft came within these [separation] margins in relation to a plane that was landing at DCA. But at no point were any of the planes headed directly for one another," says Huerta. He says the problem related to "a miscommunication between a manager at the Potomac Tracon facility and two traffic management coordinators at the [Reagan National] tower".
LaHood says the FAA has launched a full investigation. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has said it will also investigate.
Air traffic controller audio and video from controllers' screens provided by the FAA reveal a frazzled tower controller and frustrated airline pilots during the mid-afternoon incident.
The situation unfolded when convective weather and wind required the airport to switch operations on the primary runway from a northbound arrival/departure procedure to a southbound procedure.