On at least 150 flights, US commercial air carriers have either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake in time, according to a search by The Associated Press (AP) of US government safety databases and media reports since the early 1990s.
A particular trouble spot is San Jose, California. 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 16km to the southeast. The airports are south of San Francisco in California’s Silicon Valley.
“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.
A controller at a different facility who noticed the impending landing on radar warned his colleagues with a telephone hotline that piped his voice directly into the San Jose tower’s loudspeakers. The plane was waved off in time.
In nearly all the incidents, the pilots were cleared by controllers to guide the plane based on what they could see rather than relying on automation. Many incidents occur at night, with pilots reporting they were attracted by the runway lights of the first airport they saw during descent. Some pilots said they disregarded navigation equipment that showed their planes slightly off course because the information did not match what they were seeing out their windows — a runway straight ahead.
“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,” said Michael Barr, a former US Air Force pilot who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California.
Using NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, along with news accounts and reports sent to other US federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.
The tally does not include every event. Many are not disclosed to the media, and reports to the NASA database are voluntary. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) investigates wrong airport landings and many near-landings, but those reports are not publicly available. FAA officials turned down a request by AP 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.
While the database is operated by the space agency, it is paid for by the FAA and its budget has been frozen since 1997, database director Linda Connell said. As a result, fewer incident reports are being entered even though the volume of reports has soared, she said.
The accounts that are available paint a picture of repeated close calls, especially in parts of the country where airports are situated close together with runways similarly angled, including Nashville and Smyrna in Tennessee, Tucson and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and several airports in South Florida.