When Airlines Make Mega-Mistakes

Rick Seaney weighs in on recent in-flight errors.

Jan. 19, 2014— -- A veteran pilot for one of the legacy carriers told me recently, "This Southwest flight is a real head-scratcher." He then added, "Quite frankly I don't know how this can happen."

He was speaking, of course, about the carrier's 'wrong airport' caper of Jan. 12 when the Southwest plane inexplicably landed, not in Branson as scheduled, but at another Missouri airport seven miles away.

That's called a mega-mistake (and one that's still under investigation as of this writing). There have been others, but what should you do if caught up in such a snafu? There are some remedies.

By the way, mega-mistakes aren't plane crashes; those are tragedies. The mistakes we're concerned with here are mega-embarrassments. Here's a look back at some of the best of them.

Airport Code Mega-Mistakes

Code confusion doesn't begin to describe the chaos of some airport mix-ups. Remember the confused Californians who expected to land in Africa but wound up in Asia last year? Plenty of blame to go around in that snafu, including the passengers for failing to note the differences in airport codes: DKR for Dakar, Senegal and DAC for Dhaka. Dakar, Bangladesh.

The airport codes for Boston and Cleveland are pretty straightforward and hard to mix-up, you'd think (BOS and CLE) but that's just what happened in 2010 when Delta sent not one but two youngsters traveling solo to the wrong destinations on the same day (the Boston-bound child was sent to Cleveland and vice versa). The only explanation I ever saw was the always-vague 'paperwork mix-up.'

But the grand prize for such mega-mistakes goes to a 21-year-old German tourist who went online to book a flight to Sydney back in December 2006. The lad, said to be good with computers, apparently wasn't so good at spelling which may explain why he wound up in Sidney, Montana (pop. 5,000). Upon landing, the shorts-wearing visitor concluded something was amiss because summer Down Under isn't usually quite so chilly.

Pilot Mega-Mistakes

That Southwest 'wrong landing' wasn't the first. Just before Thanksgiving last year, a massive cargo plane (a modified Boeing 747) somehow missed McConnell Air Force Base and landed at a small, general aviation airport in Wichita 12 miles away. That must have been some landing since the tiny facility has no control tower and a runway a half-mile shorter than the cargo plane normally uses.

Still for sheer drama, it's hard to beat a good pilot-overshoots-destination story and I've got two. In 2008, a couple of pilots with Hawaii's Go Airlines fell asleep and flew right past their destination of Hilo and out to sea. News reports said they were incommunicado for at least 18 minutes but eventually woke up and turned the plane around. The captain was later diagnosed with sleep apnea (what the other pilot's problem was remains a mystery).

"I can assure you none of us was asleep," said a Northwest pilot to ABC News the following year, but reporters were skeptical; after all, these pilots went dark for more than an hour as frantic air traffic controllers tried to contact them. In the meantime, the aircraft overshot its destination of Minneapolis by 150 miles and was somewhere over Wisconsin before radio contact resumed. The pilots said they were distracted by a 'discussion in the cockpit'; news organizations reported both were on their laptops.

What about the Passengers?

Luckily for the passengers, when mega-mistakes occur, airlines are usually pro-active. After the recent Southwest snafu, the carrier quickly announced it not only personally apologized to each customer but refunded their entire ticket and gave vouchers for future travel.

If you are an unwitting victim of a mega-mistake and the airline doesn't reach out, then contact them. If you don't get satisfaction, consider gently venting on social media; the airlines are usually extremely responsive to complaints that everyone can hear about.

If that doesn't work, contact the Department of Transportation which accepts complaints and here's how to file them.

But here's the good news: Don't worry. There are something like 30,000 flights a day in the U.S., and pretty much all of them land where they're supposed to and the pilots do nothing more exciting than fly their planes safely. I asked the anonymous pilot mentioned at the start of this column if he ever landed at the wrong airport. "No." When asked if it could ever happen, he replied, "Highly doubtful." Pilots are extremely precise, but never say never.