Pilots are flying to and landing at the wrong airports more often than we'd like, and probably more often than we know.
According to an analysis by the Associated Press of records dating back from the early 1990s, at least 150 flights have either landed or almost landed at the wrong airport. Pilots are especially confused in San Jose, California. The AP reports:
The list of landing mistakes includes six reports of pilots preparing to land at Moffett Field, a joint civilian-military airport, when they meant to go to Mineta San Jose International Airport, about 10 miles to the southeast... "This event occurs several times every winter in bad weather when we work on Runway 12," a San Jose airport tower controller said in a November 2012 report describing how an airliner headed for Moffett after being cleared to land at San Jose.
Pilots who either land or almost-land at the wrong airports rely on sight, rather than automated navigation. A pilot might notice that they are off course, according to navigation equipment, but see a runway ahead and assume that the device is faulty. One former Air Force pilot who teaches aviation safety explains, "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."
Though the incidents have not caused any damage, they are potentially very dangerous. For one, some runways are shorter than others. Recently, a Southwest Airlines pilot accidentally landed in Taney County airport, on a runway that was shorter than the intended one in Branson, Missouri. The Taney County runway stops off above a highway. Those pilots, who have been suspended, said they mistook the small airport's runway lights for Branson's. Back in November, two pilots landed a Boeing plane on a tiny runway at Colonel Jabara Airport instead of at McConnell Air Force Base in Kansas. According to Wired, a few different circumstances contributed to that mistaken landing:
Several factors appear to have contributed to the error, not the least of which was flying into an area of overlapping airspace and an uncanny number of airports — and doing so at night. Radio communications indicate the crew had no idea Wichita has so many airports, or that so many of them look alike. And despite being instructed to follow an instrument approach, the crew at some point saw what they thought was their destination and landed the plane.
Perhaps most concerning is that, according to the Associated Press, many such cases are likely undocumented:
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials turned down a request by The Associated Press for access to those records, saying some may include information on possible violations of safety regulations by pilots and might be used in an enforcement action. NASA, on the other hand, scrubs its reports of identifying information to protect confidentiality, including names of pilots, controllers and airlines.
NASA's database, paid for by the FAA, has had its budget frozen since 1997. Because of this, according to database director Linda Connell, fewer cases are put on the record even though reports of landing or almost landing at the wrong airports have gone up.
Former National Transportation Safety Board member John Goglia told the AP that crashes happen when a number of things go wrong, so the FAA should be concerned with accidental landings as a possible contributor to more dangerous incidents. At least we can take comfort in the fact that deaths from airplane crashes are lower than ever before.