The National Transportation Safety Board has noticed a trend of commercial pilots landing at the wrong airports. Five specific flights since 2012 were cited as the basis for the Board’s recommendation. Former NTSB Member John Goglia reviews his former organization’s statement.
The Board asked the FAA to revise the Air Traffic Controller procedures to withhold clearances until after the plane being directed had flown over all the airports which are proximate to the landing pattern. Another recommendation was that the software which is utilized in landing be modified to clarify which airport is the programmed landing runway.
Member Goglia added his expert commentary; specifically he pointed out –
“…the NTSB recommends that the FAA ‘amend air traffic control procedures so that controllers withhold landing clearance until the aircraft has passed all other airports that may be confused with the destination airport’ and ‘modify the minimum safe warning altitude (MSAW) software to apply the MSAW parameters for the flight plan destination airport to touchdown’ rather than change the airport based on the observed (and possibly incorrect) flight path. Although the MSAW criteria was not a factor in the Southwest Airlines incident because the aircraft was below the radar coverage area, in the Atlas Airlines incident, if the software had been programmed to the destination airport, it would have alerted controllers that the aircraft was below the expected glide path.”
This is insightful commentary, which supports the Board and shows his comprehension of both the strategic goal of safety and the details of aviation.
The recommendation that the Controllers should be more precise in their communications with the pilots makes immense sense and is consistent with recent observations about more specific tower-cockpit information transfers. The Board’s choice of an automation amendment to the MSAW software is somewhat perplexing.
The Board has frequently articulated its concerns that pilots have become too dependent on the computer to fly the plane. Perhaps the first and most immediate response to mistaken airport landings should be to reinforce the cockpit members’ preparation for the flight. Jeppesen, among others, has published detailed maps of every commercial airport. Yes, some of the geometry of airfields are similar to other layouts, but there are a number of distinguishing factors which careful study should detect and guide the flight to its proper destination.
Placing primary emphasis on pilot preparation follows the Boards recent aviation safety themes. Deferring to computer saves should be a redundant method to assure safety and rewriting/installing of all of the code will delay the resolution of this problem.
Reinstating the importance of the pilot’s professionalism should be the first line of safety enhancement with an MSAW modification second.