Jets nearly collided at Newark airport, NTSB reports

A graphic representation of the near-miss at Newark Liberty International Airport. CBS

New information shows two jetliners almost hit each other over Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey, one of America's busiest airports. If they had collided, more than 200 people could have died.

A preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report shows the planes missed each other by just hundreds of feet. Passenger jets are supposed to be a minimum distance of two miles apart.

It was just after 3 p.m. on April 24 when United Airlines Flight 1243 from San Francisco was making its final approach with 161 people onboard.

But just as the Boeing 737 jet prepared to touch down at the airport, an ExpressJet flight bound for Memphis, Tenn., with 50 people onboard was cleared to take off on an intersecting runway.

Realizing the jets were getting too close, air traffic control ordered the United Flight to abort landing.

The two planes came within about 400 feet of each other vertically and about 200 feet laterally. It was so close the ExpressJet plane had to keep its nose down as a precaution.

The incident occurred just one day before two 757s nearly collided over the Pacific Ocean.

CBS News national transportation safety expert Mark Rosenker said, "These types of things are extremely rare, but to have two of them happen within 24 hours of each other is even more rare."

In both cases, disaster was averted in a matter of seconds.

"The NTSB is going to be looking at all factors, if processes were shortcutted or if something else happened here to create this environment where this catastrophe could've occurred," Rosenker said.

There is construction going on at the Newark airport, Crawford said. The incident, she also noted, occurred at the intersection of a shorter runway that now is being used more often because of the construction project.

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