NTSB Makes Recommendations to FAA in the Wake of Wrong Airport Landings

A commercial airliner lands at the wrong airport…

It might sound more absurd than dangerous when you read that sentence, but when a jumbo jet mistakenly lands at an airport with a 6,000-foot runway instead of the intended airport with a 12,000-foot runway, the absurdity moves beyond danger—that’s the difference between life and death. 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has investigated two recent incidents in which an airliner landed at the wrong airport. Based on the agency’s findings, it has made two safety recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA): one asks the FAA to clarify air traffic controller landing protocol when there are multiple airports in the same vicinity, and the other asks for modifications to air traffic control software that warns controllers if aircraft descends below a minimum safe altitude. 

Pilots attempting to land at McConnell Air Force Base (shown at the top) had their work cut out for them. All three air strips pictured are facing the same direction. The lowest runway pictured is where the Atlas Air flight actually landed. 

Last year the NTSB made recommendations to pilots on how they could best avoid landing at the wrong airport. This year, the NTSB narrowed its focus to air traffic control. 

On January 12, 2014, Southwest Airlines Flight 4013 mistakenly landed at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport in Branson, Missouri, 6 miles away from its intended destination of Branson Airport. The pilots of Flight 4013 contacted air traffic controllers at Branson Airport when the plane was roughly 60 miles away. An official told the flight crew the airport was at their “11 o’clock position and 15 miles.” Radar contradicted this—the airport at that heading was actually M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, not Branson Airport. 

The runway that Southwest Flight 4013 ended up landing on was only 3,738 feet long. The runway it was supposed to land on at Branson was 7,140 feet long. Luckily—perhaps even miraculously—no one was injured in this mishap and the plane wasn’t damaged. 

On November 21, 2013 an Atlas Air flight destined for McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kansas mistakenly landed at Colonel James Jabara Airport. The right runway at McConnell was 12,000 feet long. The runway that the Atlas Air flight actually landed on was just over 6,000 feet long. Aside from the significantly shorter runway length, the NTSB found that several other airport operations happened at the same time the Atlas Air flight was on the wrong runway, compromising safety even further. Again, folks aboard this flight were lucky, as no injuries were reported. 

Based on these and several other recent incidents, the NTSB is asking the FAA to change air traffic control procedures to only clear aircraft for landing after successfully passing all other airports in the vicinity so there can be no confusion. The FAA will respond to the NTSB’s recommendations within 90 days.