Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 26 April 2019

How can a plane accidentally land at the wrong airport?

A British Airways flight bound for Germany misguidedly landed in Scotland this week, and it’s not the first time such a mistake has been made

Possible paperwork errors saw a BA flight land in Edinburgh on Sunday instead of in Germany where it was scheduled to fly to. Courtesy WDL Aviation 
Possible paperwork errors saw a BA flight land in Edinburgh on Sunday instead of in Germany where it was scheduled to fly to. Courtesy WDL Aviation 

On Sunday, a British Airways flight headed for Dusseldorf in Germany mistakenly landed at Edinburgh Airport in Scotland.

Passengers on board flight BA3271, which departed from London’s City Airport, only realised they were in the wrong country when the plane touched down in the Scottish capital and a "welcome to Edinburgh" announcement was made.

The jet had to remain on the tarmac until it was given clearance to fly on to Dusseldorf, where it landed more than five hours later than scheduled.

A spokesperson at Edinburgh Airport said: “We’re a welcoming airport that is always happy to greet visitors from all over the world to our fantastic city, but this was a surprise for us as well as them.”

While many passengers were frustrated by the change of plan, some took to Twitter to comment on the funny side of the situation:

How did this occur?

The flight was operated by WDL Aviation, a German charter aviation business. BA said it was working with WDL to work out what went wrong. The British airline suggested that paperwork could have been the problem, telling the BBC that the plane had flown to Edinburgh the previous day and may have repeated the flight path again by mistake.

Has it happened before?

While situations such as these are unusual, they are by no means exceptional. An analysis of US flights by the Associated Press of Records looked at journeys from the early 1990s until 2014, and found more than 150 incidents where aircraft had landed in the wrong place.

Pilot error is one of the main causes for such incidents. From the sky, many airports look very similar, especially if they are not located next to any landmarks such as mountains, rivers, football stadiums or city skylines. Built to take advantage of wind conditions, many airports in a region will also be aligned on the same directional heading, causing confusion for pilots.

In 2017, a Delta Air Lines flight carrying 129 people landed at the wrong airport in South Dakota. Courtesy Delta Airlines
In 2017, a Delta Air Lines flight carrying 129 people landed at the wrong airport in South Dakota. Courtesy Delta Airlines

Such was the case in 2017, when a Delta Air Lines flight carrying 129 people landed at the wrong airport in South Dakota. Post-incident investigations found the cause to be human error, with the pilots not using all the instruments at their disposal to determine their location before landing.

Only human

In 2015, an AirAsia flight bound for Malaysia from Sydney flew 212 passengers around the country, before landing in Melbourne. The mistake was blamed on pilots who had entered the wrong co-ordinates into the jet’s navigation system, and had not realised they had not left Australian airspace.

A similar mistake happened in Indonesia in 2012, when a Sriwijaya Air flight from Indonesia’s Medan was bound for Minangkabau Airport in western Sumatra. Instead of reaching its destination, the plane landed in a nearby military airfield that hadn’t been used for commercial flights in more than a decade. When questioned, the pilot said he had presumed the on-board navigation systems, that did not match what he was seeing from the cockpit, were faulty.

Bright lights

Nigh time airport misidentification happens as pilots are attracted to the first runway lights they see upon descent. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons / Kentaro Lemoto 
Nigh time airport misidentification happens as pilots are attracted to the first runway lights they see upon descent. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons / Kentaro Lemoto 

Many incidents of planes landing in the wrong place have happened when pilots rely on sight rather than software and navigation tools. In the analysis by the AP, nighttime incidents were more common than daytime occurrences as pilots were attracted by the runway lights of the first airport they saw after they had begun their descent.

Runway misidentification was the case in 2014, when two pilots landed a Southwest flight at the wrong airport in Missouri. Originally due to land at Branson Airport, the jet touched down 11 kilometres away at the much smaller M Graham Clark Downtown Airport after pilots simply mixed up the airports. The runway at the latter was half the length of that in Branson, which meant pilots were forced to slam on the brakes to stop the jet in time. The aircraft filled with smoke but no passengers were injured.

Branson Airport in Missouri Courtesy Wikimedia Commons /  Kelly Trimble 
Branson Airport in Missouri Courtesy Wikimedia Commons /  Kelly Trimble 

Slipping through

Last year, Swedish airline Nextjet had a major fail when it flew 34 passengers 965 kilometres north of their intended destination. The incident was blamed on miscommunication between the airline and airport officials after Nextjet cancelled the original flight from Sundsvall to Gothenburg, but failed to inform the airport to advise passengers waiting at the gate. When the next plane showed up, those waiting to travel got on it.

Somehow, all 34 passengers missed boarding announcements that the flight was bound for Lulea and, although boarding passes should have been checked before boarding, no ground staff noticed the mismatch in destination.

Some aviation professionals are more eagle-eyed, as was seen in September last year when a Florida air-traffic controller saved a pilot from landing at the wrong airport. As an unscheduled American Airlines flight from Philadelphia approached Page Field Airport, an air-traffic controller on duty noticed the deviation and guided the plane back to its intended stopping point of Southwest Florida International Airport, some 11 kilometres away.

American aviator Douglas Corrigan earned himself the moniker Wrong Way Corrigan after mistakenly flying to Ireland instead of California.Courtesy San Diego Air and Space Museum
American aviator Douglas Corrigan earned himself the moniker Wrong Way Corrigan after mistakenly flying to Ireland instead of California.Courtesy San Diego Air and Space Museum

Perhaps the most famous wrong airport incident took place in 1938, when American aviator Douglas Corrigan took off from Brooklyn, New York bound for Long Beach in California, only to land the following morning in Dublin, Ireland. The mishap earned him the nickname Wrong Way Corrigan.

Updated: March 26, 2019 03:52 PM

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