Update (2:24 p.m. EDT): The Federal Aviation Administration corrected Halsey's original report on Thursday afternoon, saying the planes were never on a collision course. FAA administrator Michael Huerta said at a news conference that the planes did fly too close to one another, but that that none of them was ever heading directly for the others, according to the Associated Press's Jessica Gresko.
Original: Do not read this story while waiting to board a plane. Especially not at Washington, D.C.'s Reagan National Airport, where three planes got set on a collision course toward one another before "confused air traffic controllers" warned them off at the last minute Wednesday, The Washington Post's Ashley Halsey III reports. They came within 12 seconds of a three-way crash.
In fact, maybe just try to avoid Reagan airport altogether. That's where an air traffic controller apparently fell asleep on the job last year, something it turned out was terrifyingly not uncommon nationwide. Halsey noted in his coverage on Thursday that the mishap was one of "several thousand recorded errors by air traffic controllers nationwide in recent years." Ugh. But yeah, if you google "planes near miss," you get a scarily high number of results. On Thursday, the problem sounds like miscommunication among controllers, as weather moved in and area controllers decided to reverse the direction planes were approaching, Halsey reports:
“The tower agreed, but they didn’t pass it on to all the people they needed to pass it on to,” said a federal official familiar with the incident who was not authorized to speak publicly.
As a result, an incoming flight that had been cleared to land was flying head-on at two planes that had just taken off. The inbound plane and the first of the outbound planes were closing the 1.4 miles between them at a combined speed of 436 mph, a rate that meant they were about 12 seconds from impact when the tower controller recognized her mistake.
You know, Amtrak is investing big in its Washington, D.C. operation. Just saying.