Skip to main content

Wrong runway landings an urgent wake-up call

By Robert P. Mark
updated 6:37 PM EST, Tue January 14, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Robert Mark: Writer suggested it's easy to land jet at wrong airport. True, with a caveat
  • Southwest landing joins similar cases from recent years. These should raise alarm, he says
  • He says pilots often failed to heed what computer was telling them. Complacency a threat
  • Mark: Fliers should demand "automation confusion" be put on regulators' front-burner

Editor's note: Robert Mark is a commercial pilot, flight instructor and writer. He also publishes the industry blog, Jetwhine.com. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Loss of Control," which probes the issue of pilot confusion with aircraft automation

(CNN) -- In an op-ed on CNN.com, Robert Goyer suggested that it is easy to accidentally land an airplane at the wrong airport. And he is correct. The problem is that it shouldn't be, especially not with the profusion of technology at a pilot's fingertips designed to help prevent just these kinds of mistakes.

No doubt Southwest's landing at the wrong Missouri airport this week will be categorized as pilot error, as it was when a 747 crew landed at the wrong airport in Kansas in November. But labeling this all as an easy mistake or as pilot error is too simplistic.

Robert P. Mark
Robert P. Mark

In doing so, we risk ignoring a growing threat to this nation's and the world's aviation safety, a growing disconnect between the technology created by our smartest engineers and technicians and the pilots who use it. Indeed, pilots sometimes ignore the technology, as Goyer and others have speculated could have been the case in the Southwest landing, while others are overwhelmed when the technology unexpectedly fails, like it did aboard the doomed Air France Flight 447 that crashed in the ocean in 2009.

America is good at fixing problems, though. When an airliner flying in the clouds on approach to Washington struck the top of a hill after descending too low, U.S. industry developed a fix: a ground proximity warning system, a talking cockpit box that alerts pilots to approaching hazards they couldn't easily see.

But in 2012, a Russian airline crew demonstrating a new jet received a terrain warning -- an aural cockpit signal warning the crew they were too close to the ground -- flying around Indonesia, but ignored it, believing it was a computer error. All 44 people aboard that aircraft died when the airplane struck the side of a mountain. The computer's warning had been real.

In February 2009, the captain of a Continental Airlines turboprop became confused when the autopilot of his airplane turned itself off while the airplane was slowing for the approach to Buffalo, New York. The pilot was so startled by the computer shutdown that he made a fatal flying mistake. He also believed the computer's messages were a mistake. Forty-nine people in that airplane died because the pilot was wrong.

All these aircraft were equipped with the latest technologies available to make flight as safe as humanly possible. And yet each time, the crew managed to figure out a way not to heed the warnings.

The Southwest and the Atlas Air pilots -- and their passengers, of course -- were just lucky no one was hurt. But what about the next time? The Southwest crew only averted disaster by a few hundred feet, narrowly missing a drop-off at the end of the runway that would surely have broken the airplane into many pieces.

Quest: This could have been avoided
Fallout from the wrong airport landing

All these problems point to this newest threat: Pilot's confusion about what their computers are telling them, when they look at them, that is. This speaks to complacency to some extent. It's also well known that humans don't handle monitoring duties very well for very long. We grow bored rather easily.

But even labeling this a "human factors" problem is too easy. Like everything in our society these days, this complacency, this disconnect between operator and computer, is not a simple black and white problem that we can fix with another electronic box or an enthusiastic chat from the boss.

There's another overriding problem preventing us from digging deeply enough into the implications of this problem: The airline industry has become a victim of its own success, with an impressive air safety record. Before last year's crashes in San Francisco and Birmingham, Alabama, there had been not a single fatality between 2010 and 2012.

Because our record has been so good, many people inside and outside the industry, as well as legislators, regulators and certainly airline passengers may mistakenly believe that we've solved the aviation safety problem.

But just as hospital administrators would never tell patients that losing a few people now and again to infection should be considered an acceptable loss, we can't ignore the instances when something has come between our professional pilots and these technologies created to help save us from ourselves. And we in the industry are only now coming to believe this threat is real ourselves.

A recent study delivered to the FAA about automation confusion highlights some of these problems, but offered no timeline to solve them.

Passengers also need to advocate for their own safety by writing to their legislators, airline CEOs and regulators demanding that the automation confusion issue be put on the front burner now.

Like our pilots, aviation safety's threats are sending us warning messages. But right now we don't seem to be listening.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Robert P. Mark.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:18 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
updated 2:33 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
updated 2:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
updated 12:44 PM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
updated 8:29 AM EDT, Wed April 23, 2014
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
updated 7:04 AM EDT, Thu April 24, 2014
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
updated 1:37 PM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
updated 8:56 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
updated 4:36 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
updated 1:08 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
updated 8:55 AM EDT, Tue April 22, 2014
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
updated 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 2:25 PM EDT, Mon April 21, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT