For a commercial airline pilot, landing an aircraft full of people or cargo at the wrong airport has to rank right up there in the annals of bad days at work.

Casual observers might find such an event mildly amusing, but it isn't. It is profoundly dangerous and we are learning that it happens, or nearly happens, more often than the public might think.

After a Southwest Airlines pilot last month plopped his Boeing 737 down on a short-runway airport in Hollister, Mo. thinking he was landing at the nearby and much longer Branson, Mo. airport, The Associated Press wanted to see if this was an isolated case.

It was not.

The AP found that while such cases are rare when measured against the total number of commercial flights each day, they do happen.

An airline ground crew member directs an All Nippon Airways (ANA) Boeing 787 Dreamliner, arriving from Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Japan, to the
An airline ground crew member directs an All Nippon Airways (ANA) Boeing 787 Dreamliner, arriving from Narita International Airport in Tokyo, Japan, to the gate dock at Mineta San Jose International Airport. According to a report in The Associated Press, Mineta Airport is one of the biggest victims of planes landing at the wrong airports. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

What's more, the AP found that San Jose's Mineta International Airport is one of the biggest problem children.

In its reporting, AP uncovered six different reports of commercial pilots preparing to land at Moffett Field, a joint civilian-military airport about 10 miles from the intended Mineta in San Jose.

When the AP inquired about the number of cases, the FAA was not particularly helpful. So, to conduct its research, the news agency used news reports, reports made to other agencies as well as NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System.

It discovered 35 actual confused landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.


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When a plane lands -- or even attempts to land -- on a wrong runway all manner of bad things can happen. The runway could be closed for repairs, another plane could be taking off from that runway, crews could be on the runaway working. There are many more possibilities, none of them good.

Of the 35 documented wrong landings, at least 23 occurred at airports with shorter runways. The recent Missouri case was a prime example as the pilot stopped the plane just short of a significant cliff.

Again, we understand these events are a small part of the whole, but it causes us concern nonetheless and we think it should worry the FAA as well.

Our concern is shared by John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and aviation safety expert, who told the Washington Post that air crashes are nearly always the result of a string of safety lapses rather than a single mistake.

But choosing to ignore this problem would be a mistake.

The Missouri case should be a wake-up call for the FAA to thoroughly examine the issue and to establish better landing protocols, especially at airports that have had problems in the past.