DCA Audio Highlights Confusion

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Weather and a miscommunication left pilots and controllers confused and caused three commuter jets to breach separation requirements at Reagan National Airport Tuesday. Preliminary reports indicate that one aircraft came within 500 vertical feet and 1.7 miles of a departing aircraft and 600 feet and 2.8 miles of another jet. None of the jets were on collision courses, according to the FAA, and all were operated by US Airways. Audio of the event captures one controller stating that there were opposite-direction arrivals holding departures at the time. Other comments suggest controllers may have been working to reverse the flow of traffic on active runways. Audio of the event shows controllers and pilots working through the confusion.

At one point in the audio (click here for an excerpt acquired from LiveATC.net .MOV file), a pilot receives instructions after being cleared to land and asks "... what happened?" The controller responds in part "We're trying to figure this out, too." The sequence appears to have initiated with an exchange between a manager at Potomac Consolidated Terminal Radar Approach Control and two traffic managers at Reagan National, acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said Thursday. Departures at the airport were temporarily halted as controllers reversed the preferred runway. The incident highlights the importance of clean communication in a system that depends on controllers for separation. The FAA is looking into details of the miscommunication.