Southwest Airlines says the pilots of a plane that landed at the wrong airport on Sunday evening are on paid leave. Airline spokeswoman Brandy King told The Associated Press on Monday that the captain and first officer were removed from flying duties while the airline and federal aviation safety officials investigate the mistake.
The captain is in his 14th year flying for Southwest and the co-pilot has 12 years with the company, according to a news release that was on the airline's website for awhile on Monday afternoon. The pilots were at the controls of a Boeing 737 that was flying from Chicago to Branson Airport when they landed at the smaller M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport operated by Taney County, which has a much shorter runway that ends in steep embankments on both ends. The two airports are seven miles apart but their runways are both built in approximately the same directions, northwest to southeast.
A different pilot and co-pilot for the commercial jet took off without a problem at 3:00 Monday after several hours of careful preparations. The Boeing 737-700 flew to Tulsa International Airport for refueling, and then on to Dallas, where Southwest is headquartered at Love Field. It was back in service early Monday evening, according to the airline's website.
Michelle Agnew, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines at its headquarters in Dallas, issued this statement on Monday morning by email:
"We continue to look into the circumstances which led the Pilot in command of flight 4013 from Chicago Midway to land at the airport, several miles from the Branson Airport we serve.
"We are cooperating with authorities in this investigation. We want to thank first responders and Branson Airport Administrators for joining in the work with our ground operations staff to immediately take care of our Customers and their baggage last night. We have since reached out to each Customer directly to apologize, refund their tickets, and provide future travel credit as a gesture of goodwill for the inconvenience.
"Another aircraft was brought into Branson last evening to bring continuing Customers on the flight to Dallas Love Field."
A spokesman for Branson Airport said the jet had not yet reached Branson Airport control tower air space, which is a five-mile circle from the center of the runway. He said the Southwest crew was communicating with the FAA tower at Springfield-Branson National Airport in Springfield, which is standard operating procedure for planes going to Branson Airport.
The pilot who landed the jet had to brake hard. Some passengers say they smelled burning rubber from the tires. The jet stopped 300 to 500 feet from the end of the runway, which is 3,738 feet long. The Branson Airport runway is 7,140 feet long.
About five minutes after the landing, the pilot informed the passengers that they landed at the wrong location. Emergency responders helped the passengers get off the plane, and buses took them to the Branson Airport, where another jet took them on to Dallas, unless Branson Airport was their intended destination.
Besides the runway length, the crew that took off had to be concerned about air temperature, weight, wind and the height above seal level of the airport. According to a flight tracking website, the jet will fly to Tulsa International Airport.
U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, wants a federal investigation of the wrong-airport landing. Blunt is the ranking member of the Commerce Subcommittee on Surface Transportation and Merchant Marine Infrastructure, Safety, and Security. The subcommittee has jurisdiction over the safety, security and infrastructure of the country’s freight and passenger transportation networks.
“I’ve landed at this airport and it’s tough to navigate in small planes – let alone in an aircraft this size. People have every right to assume that they will arrive at their correct destination. As a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, I will insist that federal regulators do a thorough investigation to find out exactly what happened in Southwest Missouri," Blunt said in a news release.
In an interview with a CNN reporter, Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, outlined some of the questions that investigators will explore.
“This is a 737-700, what they call a next generation plane. It has the latest in navigational aids and in-flight management aids," said Goelz. "The pilots were likely making what they call a visual flight approach. They were likely in contact with the tower at Branson and the question is: ‘How did, not only one of them miss it, how did both of them miss it? What it’s called in the trade is a lack of a situational awareness. Why weren’t these pilots paying attention? And then, secondly, it is what they call cockpit resource management. How come the non-flying pilot didn’t point out that this was not lining up precisely the way the Branson Airport should have lined up?”
Southwest Airlines says it apologized to all the passengers on the jet, refunded the costs of their fares and gave them $400 in credit for a future flight.
Report by Jim Salter, The Associated Press, on Monday morning:
Federal officials are investigating why a Southwest Airlines flight that was supposed to land at Branson Airport in southwest Missouri instead landed at another airport about seven miles away that only had about half as much runway.
Southwest Airlines Flight 4013, carrying 124 passengers and five crew members, was scheduled to go from Chicago's Midway International Airport to Branson Airport, airline spokesman Brad Hawkins said Sunday in a statement. But the Boeing 737-700 landed at Taney County Airport, which also is known as M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport.
The website for M. Graham Clark Airport says its longest runway is 3,738 feet. Branson Airport's website says its runway is 7,140 feet long.
"As soon as we touched down the pilot applied the brake very hard and very forcibly," said passenger Scott Schieffer, a 36-year-old attorney from Dallas. "I thought, `Well, this is a very short runway and this must be how he has to land.' I was wearing a seatbelt but I was lurched forward because of the heavy pressure of the brake. You could smell burnt rubber, a very distinct smell of burnt rubber as we were stopping."
The flight attendant announced "Welcome to Branson," Schieffer said. Then, after a few moments, "the pilot came on and said, `Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to tell you we landed at the wrong airport."'
At first, Schieffer said, he considered it only an inconvenience. But once he got off the plane, someone pointed to the edge of the runway, maybe 100 feet away, which Schieffer said appeared to end abruptly.
"It was surreal when I realized we could have been in real danger and instead of an inconvenience, it could have been a real tragedy," Schieffer said.
Hawkins said all the passengers and crew were safe and no injuries were reported. He did not have information on why the plane went to the wrong airport. Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro said the agency is investigating the incident.