Continental Airlines' regional carriers flying from Houston to Lake Charles Regional Airport on the Louisiana Gulf Coast have at least three times mistakenly landed at the smaller, nearby Southland Executive field. Both airports have runways painted with the numbers 15 and 33 to reflect their compass headings. Runways are angled based on prevailing winds.
The recent wrong airport landings by a Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 in Missouri and an Atlas Air Boeing 747 freighter in Kansas have heightened safety concerns. The Southwest pilots stopped just short of a ravine at the end of the short runway in Hollister, Mo., when they meant to land on a runway twice as long at the nearby Branson airport. Of the 35 documented wrong landings, 23 occurred at airports with shorter runways. The runways were longer in three cases, they were the same length in two and the wrong airport wasn't identified or its runway length was unavailable in seven.
FAA officials emphasized that cases of wrong airport landings are rare. There are nearly 29,000 commercial aircraft flights daily in the U.S., but only eight wrong airport landings by U.S. carriers in the last decade, according to AP's tally. None has resulted in death or injury.
"The FAA reviews reported wrong-airport incidents to determine whether steps such as airfield lighting adjustments may reduce pilot confusion," the agency said in a statement.
But John Goglia, a former National Transportation Safety Board member and aviation safety expert, says the FAA and the NTSB should be concerned. Air crashes are nearly always the result of a string of safety lapses rather than a single mistake, he noted. Attempts to land at wrong airports represent "another step up the ladder toward a riskier operation," he said.
Runway condition is also a worry when a plane makes a mistaken approach. When an air traffic controller clears a plane to land on a specific runway, "you know you pretty much have a clear shot at a couple of miles of smooth concrete," said Rory Kay, a training captain at a major airline. "If you choose to land somewhere else, then all bets are off. There could be a bloody big hole in the middle of the runway. There could be a barrier across it. There could be vehicles working on it."