WASHINGTON — At a time when a cellphone can guide you to your driveway, commercial pilots attempt to land at the wrong airport more often than most passengers realize or government officials admit, according to an Associated Press search of government safety data and news reports since the early 1990s.
On at least 150 flights, including a Southwest Airlines jet last month in Missouri and a cargo plane last fall in Kansas, U.S. commercial passenger and cargo planes have either landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake in time.
A particular trouble spot is San Jose, Calif. 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,” said a San Jose airport tower controller in a November 2012 report, describing how an airliner headed toward Moffett after being cleared to land at San Jose. The plane was waved off in time.
In nearly all the incidents, the pilots were cleared by controllers to fly 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 ignored navigation equipment showing their planes slightly off course because the information didn’t 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 Air Force pilot who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California.