Misidentifying the Runway Can Be Hazardous to Everyone

Most incidents involved GA aircraft.

Nothing ruins a pilot's day more than landing on the wrong runway, or even worse, touching down on a taxiway the pilot mistakenly thought was the runway. While a slap to the head is certainly in order for anyone who falls prey to a case of mistaken runway identity, there's also the potential for much more serious incidents, such as what occurred last summer at San Francisco International Airport. In July 2017, an AirCanada A320 nearly landed on a parallel taxiway full of aircraft at night. In an effort to call attention to the problem and offer some solutions, the FAA recently produced a new safety video titled "Wrong Surface Landings."

The video points out that, especially at towered airports, pilot workload can open many possibilities for miscommunication or runway misidentification, factors that help create a landing on the wrong surface about once every other day in the U.S., with GA traffic accounting for nearly 85 percent of those incidents. Nearly 9 out of 10 of these incidents occur during daylight hours in good weather.

Airport geometry, especially parallel runways with nearby parallel taxiways running the length of the runway, contribute to 76 percent of wrong surface landings. Parallels with offset thresholds exacerbate the problem, as do runways with different colored surfaces. Nighttime hours make this problem worse. Use of the localizer or a GPS approach, even in good weather, is one solution to confirm the aircraft is headed for the correct runway.

Pilots should read back the runway on which they’ve been cleared when they receive their ATC clearance to land, although this doesn’t guarantee anything. The agency said that in 80 percent of incidents where pilots landed on the wrong surface, the PIC actually read back the correct landing clearance. The final nail in the coffin can include expectation bias in which the pilot hears what they expect to from the controller and miss what they actually said.