WASHINGTON -- At a time when a cell phone can guide you to your driveway, commercial pilots attempt to land at the wrong airport more often than most passengers realize or government officials admit, according to an Associated Press search of government safety data and news reports since the early 1990s.
On at least 150 flights, including a Southwest Airlines jet last month in Missouri and a jumbo cargo plane last fall in Kansas, U.S. commercial passenger and cargo planes have landed at the wrong airport or started to land and realized their mistake.
A particular trouble spot is San Jose, Calif. The list of landing mistakes includes six reports of pilots preparing to land at Moffett Field, a joint civilian-military airport, when they meant to go to Mineta San Jose International Airport, about 10 miles to the southeast. The airports are south of San Francisco in California's Silicon Valley.
"This event occurs several times every winter in bad weather when we work on Runway 12," a San Jose airport tower controller said in a November 2012 report describing how an airliner headed for Moffett after being cleared to land at San Jose. The plane was waved off in time.
In nearly all incidents, the pilots were cleared by controllers to fly based on what they could see, rather than relying on automation. Many incidents occur at night, with pilots reporting they were attracted by runway lights at the first airport they saw during descent. Some pilots said they disregarded navigation equipment that showed their planes slightly off course because the information didn't match what they were seeing out their windows -- a runway straight ahead.
Using NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System as well as news accounts and reports sent to other federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.
The tally doesn't include every event. Many aren't disclosed to the media, and reports to the NASA database are voluntary.
The Federal Aviation Administration investigates wrong airport landings and many near-landings, but those reports aren't publicly available. FAA officials turned down an AP request for access to those records, saying some may include information on pilots' possible violations of safety regulations and might be used in an enforcement action.
NASA, on the other hand, scrubs its reports of identifying information to protect confidentiality, including names of pilots, controllers and airlines. While the database is operated by the space agency, it is paid for by the FAA, and its budget has been frozen since 1997, database director Linda Connell said. As a result, she said, fewer incident reports are being entered, even though the volume of reports has soared.
The available accounts show repeated close calls, especially in parts of the nation where airports are situated close to runways similarly angled, including Nashville and Smyrna in Tennessee, Tucson and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and several South Florida airports.
"Nashville and Smyrna is interesting," said Kevin Hiatt, a former Delta Air Lines chief pilot. As a plane approaches from the southeast, "there's three airports right in a row that are pointed almost exactly the same."
Continental Airlines regional carriers flying from Houston to Lake Charles Regional Airport on the Louisiana Gulf Coast have mistakenly landed at least three times 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 Boeing 737 in Missouri and an Atlas Air Boeing 747 freighter in Kansas have heightened safety concerns. The Southwest pilots stopped just shy 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 nearby Branson. At least 23 of 35 documented wrong landings occurred at airports with shorter runways.
FAA officials emphasized that cases of wrong airport landings are rare. There are nearly 29,000 daily U.S. commercial flights, but only eight wrong airport landings by U.S. carriers in the last decade, the AP found -- none resulting 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 officials didn't reply when the AP requested examples of steps taken in response to specific incidents.