Runway Chicken at DCA
I was driving in my truck yesterday morning hearing SecDOT Ray LaHood getting mildly backed into a corner in a radio interview about that little runway departure dust-up at Reagan National last month. The host was rather insistent that LaHood assure the traveling public that the FAA would promise that this wouldn't happen again. But LaHood's way too practiced a pol to give anything of the sort. His answers were predictably content free.
I was secretly channeling him to say, "Look, the system is run by humans and humans screw up. That's what happened here. We have a safe system, but as long as people run it, there will be errors."
And so there was, although who made it has yet to be revealed. It seems unlikely that it was a line controller's mistake, however. Just to refresh, DCA was in a north operation on runway 1, but some weather developed near the arrival fixes so the TRACON decided to switch to runway 19, probably using the River Visual. The tapes seem to show that the TRACON duly informed the tower of this plan, but the local controller was never informed. So she launched a couple of departures into a Republic RJ arriving from the south. The worst of the loss of separation was reportedly .82 miles laterally and 800 feet vertically. Not exactly the stuff of near misses.
The incident got a lot of mainstream press play because it just sounds so stupid, but it's not much more than just another operational error. What's going to make it interesting is who dropped the ball and why. The TRACON clearly didn't communicate directly with the local controller. She wouldn't have somehow forgotten that the airport was reconfiguring.
So the smart money is that the stink belongs on the guys wearing the ties—the supervisory ranks. We'll see. These airport configuration changes are an everyday thing in all kinds of complex airspace. To do them right requires a lot of very careful controller-to-controller coordination to shuffle airplanes around without losing separation. Controllers are good at it and someone ought to explain that to the freckle-necked masses flying on airliners. (I just did, but only the choir reads this blog.)
Meanwhile, the FAA is doing its usual national rug dance promising procedures to prevent this from happening again. And that is, of course, just silly. More layers of procedures and people will just introduce the likelihood of some other oversight or distraction causing some other kind of human error. I'd say find the guy who owns this one and tell him not to do it again.
Yeah, I know. That's just too sensible.