AP: Airline pilots land at the wrong airport more often than you might think

Pilots, like those in charge of this Southwest plane last month, fly to the wrong airport more often than you might think.  Photo: Associated Press.

Pilots, like those in charge of this Southwest plane last month, fly to the wrong airport more often than you might think. Photo: Associated Press.

How often do airplanes land at the wrong airport?

More often than you might think, according to a story published Monday by the Associated Press. AP says more than 120 commericial flights have landed at the wrong airport in the past two decades, with a disproportionate number of them coming in San Jose, Calif. AP says the San Jose issues often come in bad weather, when officials are doing work on Runway 12.

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 didn’t match what they were seeing out their windows—a runway straight ahead.

Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot who now teaches at USC in Los Angeles, tells AP that pilots sometimes get confused and convince themselves that they’re actually going to the right airport.

“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,’” Barr said to AP. “They’re like the sirens of the ocean.”

We haven’t heard much from Southwest since it suspended the pilots who guided the jet that landed at the wrong Missouri airport next month. Do you suppose those pilots will ever fly again?

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