FAA Puts The Kibosh On Traffic-Reversing Operation That Almost Led To Mid-Air Plane Collision

When I’m in an airplane, I have no idea what air traffic control is doing or how they manage to make sure every single plane gets off the ground or lands without running into each other — but I know it’s a tricky dance. And to make it  less tricky, the Federal Aviation Administration is banning airport air traffic controllers from using a method of running things that contributed to last week’s incident at Ronald Reagan National Airport where three planes almost collided in mid-air.

The operation is called traffic-reversing, and allows for controllers to direct some planes to both take off and land from the opposite of the usual direction. That’s going bye-bye, said FAA officials, and new procedures will be in place within a month. The operation will only be allowed during emergencies from now on, according to the Associated Press.

In last week’s incident, three US Airways commuter jets got way too close after a communication failure that cleared two outbound flights to head up while another plane was coming in to land. The FAA said they wouldn’t have crashed anyway, as they were at different altitudes and headings, but it was closer than is allowed by the agency’s rules. The incoming flight was redirected.

“In light of these preliminary findings, out of an abundance of caution, there are some immediate steps we are taking,” FAA Chief Operating Officer J. David Grizzle wrote in a memo. He added that in the future managers will not be multitasking while handling complicated air traffic, which was apparently part of the problem in that case.

The change shouldn’t cause delays or disruptions at any airports, as the flow of landing and taking off traffic usually changes directions multiple times throughout the day. Directing only a few flights to land in the opposite way, however, won’t happen anymore.

FAA suspends operation that led to near-collision [Associated Press]


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  1. AzCatz07 says:

    I just watched an episode of Air Disasters on the Smithsonian Channel that was all about air traffic control and various errors that have led to mid-air collisions, including Cerritas, CA, and the one years ago over the Grand Canyon. They covered the ADS-B system, which replaces radar with GPS that the pilots can use to see other planes.

    I know that’s not really what this article is about, but since I just watched that episode yesterday this made me think of it.

    • HC130Nav says:

      Actually, a certain number of radar sites will be maintained, but many will be decommissioned. The ADS-B signal is easy to fake, and can create false targets next to real targets on the controllers screen. The ADS-B receiver may be on your local cell tower, and not an FAA-secured and FAA maintained site. Yay for contracting!

      This WWII technology has been upgraded many times over and does the job quite well without giving evil doers and easy way to mess with the system.

  2. dicobalt says:

    His secret question was What is you’re favorite color?” The answer? “Blue.” Seriously, that happens.

  3. HC130Nav says:

    Typical government, and FAA over-reaction. Let’s punish everyone instead of the people who caused the problem. This totally safe type of operation at other airports is now banned because some management folks messed up and FAILED to communicate while making a staffing schedule – instead of monitoring the operation they get paid 6 figures for.

    There are even rules in the ATC rulebook to do this,
    6-3-1. SEPARATION MINIMA (Initial Separation of Departing and Arriving Aircraft)
    Search 7110.65 on the FAA website and look at these if you don’t believe me.

    • jeffbone says:

      I’m also kinda curious as to how the FAA plans to repeal the laws of physics and fluid dynamics which pretty much dictate that you have to land and take off into the wind…

      • HenryES says:

        I was thinking the same thing. DCA only has one main runway, so they either take off and land upriver or down depending on which way the wind is blowing. It’s a challenge for pilots in the first place because there are so many restrictions on their takeoff paths due to its proximity to downtown DC and people who live close to the flight paths who complain about noise.

      • bravejango says:

        What they are stopping is Opposite Direction Operations. How ATC works with arrivals and departures in a nut shell is this. The Tower decides based on the wind what runway they are going to use (in this example assume the runway they have is 17/35) which today because of the wind they are going to use runway 17. So they call their approach facility and let them know they will be using runway 17 operations. Now halfway through the day the wind changes and favors runway 35 operations but there was still a plane taxing to 17 and its taking them a little time to have the cabin ready because some kid is running through the isles.

        The Tower calls their approach facility and lets them know they are switching to runway 35 operations. Which means approach now has to send all arrivals to runway 35 instead of 17. They also let the aircraft know that they are switching runways and as they are doing so the plane that was taxing to 17 calls and says they are ready to depart and would like an opposite direction departure. The controllers being nice call approach and request an opposite direction departure so that they aircraft does not have to taxi all the way across the airport (aka saving time and fuel). Approach can either approve or deny the request for an opposite direction departure based on current separation.

        So now because of the new FAA ruling that aircraft that could normally take off opposite direction now has to taxi all they way across the airport and get in line at the back of the line.

      • SnickerDoodle says:

        It doesn’t sound like the FAA is trying to stop airports from going into the wind as necessary, just stopping the practice of allowing individual flights from changing directions at the descrition of the controller with no regard for the weather.

  4. Sad Sam says:

    Interesting, my local airport (So. Fla.) switched direction from day to day or from hour to hour. I know both because I use the airport regularly and because I can see the planes from my office window. As thunderstorms develop inland, the airport switches direction to the ocean and vice versa. I’m pretty sure the two airports further south utilize the same switcheroo.

  5. Press1forDialTone says:

    The amount of traffic when the maneuver is done is what is concerning
    the FAA. At smaller airports with non-continuous traffic, switching can
    be done easily and in plenty of time and all the pilots are made aware.

    In this case, the manager of the situation (they were switching due to weather
    concerns) was overburdened and really got caught with a situation where the
    maneuver had started and the traffic increased. As the article said, the planes
    were not in any danger of colliding but minimums were breached. The FAA
    did the right thing. Of course if Romney is elected, these types of cautions will
    be repealed because time is money and money is the only thing that is important
    and the goal is to have the most money.