An American Airlines flight made headlines on August 31, 2018, when it approached and nearly landed at the wrong airport in Florida. Though the error was corrected in time for the aircraft to course correct to its true destination, the event raises questions about how often planes actually end up in the wrong place.
When taking a flight, how often do you question that your plane is actually going to end up at the destination printed on your boarding pass?
According to Dan Reed of Forbes, landing at the wrong airport is not as uncommon as passengers might think.
The majority of mistaken landings take place with inexperienced flyers piloting private planes, he writes, but there have also been a surprising number involving commercial flights in aviation history. The causes can be as simple as a pilot entering the wrong airport code into navigation instruments or confusing the look of two proximate airports from the sky. He notes that “from the air lots of airports, especially smaller ones and those with only one runway, look pretty much alike.”
Reed recounts some notable wrong landings in his article, including a Delta Airlines Airbus A320 accidentally landing on a military base in 2016, a 2013 Kenya-bound Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 767 landing instead at an airport in Tanzania, and a charter flight carrying the White House press corps in 1995 ending up at San Antonio International Airport (SAT) instead of its actual destination of Kelly Air Force Base.
The hassle for passengers and embarrassment for pilots isn’t the most pressing issue for these wrong way landings; in some cases, navigating to the incorrect airport can be downright perilous if the plane needs more runway clearance to land or take off. This issue occurred in 2013 when a Boeing 747 “Dreamlifter” nearly ran off the runway at Colonel James Jabara Airport (AAO) in Kansas. On paper, the large plane needed nearly 3,000 feet more runway for a safe landing, and the pilot likely only managed the feat because the plane was nearly empty and low on fuel.
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