How Can an Airliner Land at the Wrong Airport?

Captain Chris Manno

Air travelers are asking, “How can a modern airliner land at the wrong airport?” My answer is simple: very easily.

Let me explain. First, flying a jet is not like driving your car: a typical aircraft approach speed is about three times the velocity of your car at highway speed. In flight, things happen fast; ten miles is more like a block or two in your car.

Throw in obscured visibility, poor lighting, or weather like rain or fog. Now, if you’re looking in the general direction of your destination, covering a mile every 20 seconds, visual references may make two different airports seem virtually identical. That’s partly because runways are typically laid out into the wind, and runways within fifty miles will probably be laid out exactly alike.

Add to the confusion the fact that small airports have minimal other distinguishing characteristics: a runway, a small, plain box-like terminal. Now add a dose of fatigue for pilots who’ve had a long day or an early sign in, and the chances of a visual sighting of the wrong airport compound.

I’ve spent over 30 years as an airline pilot trying to be sure I don’t fall victim to that conspiracy of commonplace factors that can result in landing at the wrong airport. Here’s how I try to be certain that I don’t. First, every modern jet has a map display that includes the pertinent information for every airport we must fly to. The key is to be sure to identify and activate the desired waypoint on the screen. That is, the runway, the final approach fix — something. Sure, smaller airports may not have an instrument approach, but they always display the correct runway if the pilots select the display.

I’m even more paranoid: for example, flying in and out of Nashville, I worry that I’ll mis-identify Smryna, an airport within a few miles of the Nashville Airport that has a similar runway configuration. So I put Smyrna on the navigation display as a fix: if we’re aimed at that fix, it’s the wrong damn airport.

There’s little an airline pilot can do about the insidious factors of fatigue, dehydration, limited nutrition, and poor sleep in a hotel. But, there are a few things a pilot can do, like those I mentioned, to stack the odds against landing at the wrong airport. Regardless, there are no foolproof, perfect solutions.

Whenever the news reports an airliner landing at the wrong airport, I redouble my efforts and thank my lucky stars that it’s not me.

Chris Manno has been a pilot at a major airline for 31 years.