Pilots Head To The Wrong Airports More Frequently Than You Might Imagine

Last month, a Southwest Airlines flight made headlines when it landed at the wrong Branson, MO, airport, but a new report finds that while it’s rare for a pilot to make a mistake about where to land his or her plane, it happens more than you probably think it does.

The AP reviewed air safety documents and media reports for the last two decades and found at least 150 incidents in which a commercial flight either landed at the incorrect airport or began to land before realizing a mistake was made.

According to the AP, many of these goofed landings and approaches occurred at night when a pilot sees an airport’s runway lights and mistakenly believes that it is the one at which he’s supposed to land. And in almost all cases, the air traffic controller on the ground gave the pilot clearance to land based on what the pilot sees and relays to the controller, rather than any automated system.

“You’ve got these runway lights, and you are looking at them, and they’re saying: ‘Come to me, come to me. I will let you land.’ They’re like the sirens of the ocean,” explains a former Air Force pilot who now teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California.

“Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” isn’t just a Burt Bacharach/Hal David/Dionne Warwick classic, it’s also a valid question to ask of several pilots who have confused the runway at San Jose’s Moffett Field with the nearby Mineta San Jose International Airport.

In a 2012 report discovered by the AP, a San Jose air traffic controller writes that airport confusion “occurs several times every winter in bad weather,” with planes being cleared to land at Mineta while they were actually preparing to land at Moffett.

And San Jose isn’t alone in this sort of mix-up. Last summer, a commercial flight headed for San Antonio International in Texas was actually about to land at Lackland Air Force Base. Someone pointed this out at the last minute to the pilot, who aborted the landing and headed to the correct airport. When he spoke to the San Antonio tower about the goof, he recalled that “They did not seem too concerned…. and said this happens rather frequently there.”

While the AP found 35 mistaken landings and 115 approaches at wrong airports in news reports and NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, it believes there are others, as reports to the NASA database are voluntary. Reporters requested FAA documents that would reveal a more accurate number but were turned down, claiming that some of the information in those reports may be used in eventual enforcement actions against pilots.

The potential problems with landing at the wrong airport don’t just involve having to move passengers and cargo to the correct destination or the embarrassment of admitting an error.

A training captain for a major airline explains to the AP that when a pilot lands at the wrong airport, they don’t know the length or condition of the runway on which they are about to touch down.

“There could be a bloody big hole in the middle of the runway,” he says. “There could be a barrier across it. There could be vehicles working on it.”