How Often Do Pilots Head To The Wrong Airport?

  @MarkJohansonIBT on February 11 2014 6:31 AM
Southwest
A Southwest Airlines flight bound for Branson Airport landed on a much smaller Missouri runway last month after pilots steered the plane to the wrong airport. Reuters

It’s an error that’s often made on the fly -- at least that’s what two pilots said last month after they mistakenly landed Southwest Flight 4013 at the wrong Missouri airport.

While the runway at Branson Airport is 7,140 feet long, the tiny substitute the pilots found themselves at in Hollister, Mo., was about half that length at 3,738 feet. Consequently, they had to act fast and brake hard to bring the Boeing 737-700 to a rest just short of a ravine.

The mistake left the 124 passengers not only shaken but also stranded on the tarmac for two hours while crew brought over steps from Branson to help them deplane. The pilots, who apologized profusely for their mistake, were suspended pending the outcome of an investigation.

Their headline-making blunder had many wondering both how this could have happened and how often it does. 

In an article by Joan Lowy published on Monday, the Associated Press said that it had scoured government safety databases and media records since the early 1990s and found that, on at least 150 flights involving U.S. air carriers, pilots have either landed at the wrong airport (35 incidents) or started to land and realized their mistake in the nick of time (115 incidents).

The researchers uncovered several “trouble spots” where such mistakes are more likely to occur. In San Jose, for example, pilots at the helm of at least six flights prepared to land at Moffett Field, a joint civilian-military airport, when they meant to go to Mineta San Jose International Airport. A San Jose airport tower controller wrote in a November 2012 report that the event tends to occur more often in the winter and during foul weather.

Other trouble spots where airports are situated close together with similarly angled runways include Tucson and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, Nashville and Smyrna in Tennessee, and several airstrips in South Florida.

The close proximity of three airports in Wichita, Kan., caused confusion for a Boeing 747 jumbo jet in November when the pilots landed at Col. James Jabara Airport, about 8 miles north of the freighter’s intended destination at the McConnell Air Force Base. Recent incidents that involved passengers include a United Express flight that landed at the wrong West Virginia airport in August 2012, and a Continental Airlines flight that landed at the wrong Louisiana airport in September 2011.

The AP noted that the majority of the incidents it uncovered happened at night with pilots who said they were attracted by the runway lights of the first airport they saw during descent. It added that the figure of 150 doesn’t necessarily include every event.

Many wrong airport incidents aren't disclosed to the media and reporting such incidents to NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System database is voluntary. Even so, NASA redacts identifying information to protect confidentiality, including names of pilots, controllers and airlines. Although the database is operated by the space agency, it's paid for by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA's reports on wrong airport landings and many near-landings aren’t publicly available. The AP said FAA officials rejected its records request, saying some may include information on possible violations of safety regulations by pilots and might be used in an enforcement action.

NASA, meanwhile, lost funding for its database in 1997. As a result, the AP said fewer incident reports are entered into the system even though the volume of reports has soared. 

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