August 7, 2012 / 4:22 PM / 5 years ago

US suspends an airport traffic-flow switch procedure

* Move follows close call over Washington's Reagan airport
    * New procedures expected to be in place within a month
    * FAA says acting "out of an abundance of caution"

    By Jim Wolf
    WASHINGTON, Aug 7 (Reuters) - U.S. authorities said Tuesday
they had halted for now a traffic-switching procedure at issue
when three U.S. Airways flights came too close to one
another over Washington's Reagan National Airport last week.
    The Federal Aviation Administration said no standard rules 
existed for "opposite-direction" operations used at airports
nationwide. Such switches are made for noise mitigation and
cargo operations among other things. 
    They occur when an arrival or a departure is cleared to use
a runway end that is opposite from the established flow of
    In the July 31 incident over Reagan National, two regional
commuter jets took off in the direction of an incoming flight
with inadequate separation. 
    The mishap was caused by "miscommunication" between the
control tower and a regional traffic-control hub while reversing
traffic flow because of bad weather developing to the south,
according to FAA preliminary findings.  
    The FAA believes the lack of a standard protocol for
opposite-direction operations contributed to the
miscommunication, J. David Grizzle, the FAA's chief operating
officer, said in a memo.  
    This was the case even though such a switch involves many of
the same elements as turning the flow of an airport overall, a
routine maneuver, said the FAA, the Transportation Department
arm responsible for operating the nation's air-traffic control
    The FAA, as a result, has suspended opposite-direction
operations at commercial airports until detailed procedures can
be developed and implemented through training "out of an
abundance of caution," he said.
    Standard procedures are expected to be in place across the
air-traffic control systems within a month and sooner at
locations that need to use them frequently, Grizzle said. 
    The too-close flights near Washington were the latest in a
string of incidents that highlight concerns over air traffic
    Grizzle said preliminary findings showed that the aircraft
over Reagan were never on a head-to-head course and they
remained at different altitudes.
    The FAA has concluded that managers' intentions at the
regional traffic-control hub had been to turn only a series of
arrivals, he said. 
    "Only after the loss-of-separation events was the flow of
traffic at the airport turned completely," Grizzle said. 
    Standard separation distances -- 1,000 feet vertically and
three nautical miles laterally -- were breached over Reagan when
one of the inbound flights came as close as 800 feet vertically
and .82 miles laterally of an outbound flight.
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