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 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT