British Airways accidentally sent a plane to Scotland instead of Germany — and it turns out flights getting lost is more common than you think

Two United Airlines pilots in a Boeing 747 in November 2017.

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Two United Airlines pilots in a Boeing 747 in November 2017.
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Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images/Business Insider

  • A British Airways plane accidentally landed in Scotland instead of Germany on Monday, sparking surprise and derision online.
  • Although the vast majority of flights land at the right destinations, such situations are not totally unheard of.
  • An Associated Press analysis found that at least 150 flights by US carriers alone landed or started to land in the wrong airport between the early 1990s and 2014.
  • Errors included landing in the wrong airport in the right city and landing the wrong country. Human error is the main cause.
  • A main reason is that most airports look alike, one pilot said: “Humans often see what they expect to see, even when it is wrong.”

Passengers on a British Airways flight on Monday from London to Düsseldorf, Germany, were shocked when an announcement welcomed them instead to Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland.

British Airways apologized to the customers who accidentally ended up 525 miles from their destination. The German firm WDL Aviation, which was running the British Airways-branded flight, told Business Insider that it is still investigating what went wrong.

The story went viral, partly because of how unusual it seemed. But a flight accidentally landing in the wrong airport, country, or even continent, is more common than you might think.

Read more: A British Airways flight from London to Germany took off in the wrong direction and landed in Scotland, 525 miles from its destination

An Associated Press analysis of flight records found that at least 150 flights by US carriers alone landed or started to land in the wrong place between the early 1990s and 2014. The review did not cover diversions because of emergencies, such as faults with the plane or medical incidents on board.

A British Airways aircraft.

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A British Airways aircraft.
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British Airways

This typically happens because of human error.

For example, when a Delta flight landed in the wrong Minneapolis airport in 2017, the official investigation concluded it was because the pilot had not flown that route a lot and got confused.

And the investigation into a lost 2015 Air Asia flight found that the pilot “inadvertently” put in the wrong coordinates for his flight. Instead of going from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the pilot put in coordinates in South Africa and ended up coming back to Australia and landing in Melbourne.

The view out the window of a passenger plane flying over Colorado.

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The view out the window of a passenger plane flying over Colorado.
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Robert Alexander/Getty Images

And, if you go back far enough, you can find cases where the planes ended up on the wrong continent.

The aviator Douglas Corrigan took off for a solo trip from Brooklyn, New York, to Los Angeles in 1938, only to end up in Dublin after a whole night in the air.

Read more: Ryanair offered a ‘Geography for Dummies’ book to British Airways after it accidentally flew a plane to Scotland instead of Germany

One airline found that it can be dangerous to poke fun at destination mishaps.

Ryanair mockingly offered a copy of “Geography for Dummies” to British Airways after its accidental detour, only for Twitter users to point out some of its own past flight diversions.

Pilots can land in the wrong airport because of administrative errors or simply because they look the same

British Airways said that the diversion was an accident caused by paperwork for the flight being filed incorrectly, a possibility WDL said it would investigate.

But pilots sometimes land in the wrong airport for a simpler reason: Many airports look the same.

The Flight Safety Foundation warned of cases in which an error in the pilot’s visual perception meant that the plane landed in the wrong place.

It found examples in which flight crews thought they were arriving at the correct airport because of its appearance.

In November 2013, a plane landed in the wrong Kansas airport because the flight crews thought the runways looked similar. In December 2013, a plane landed in the wrong Missouri airport for the same reason.

The foundation said that both aircraft crews were flying at night and with decent visibility and “thought they saw the correct airport and runway.”

The pilot John Cox told USA Today that pilots can land at the wrong airport as “humans often see what they expect to see, even when it is wrong.”

“In some cases, the crew visually sees a runway and believes it is the runway of intended landing. Confirmation bias helps them accept evidence supporting their belief and discount evidence contrary to it.”

cockpit pilots

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aviation-images.com/UIG via Getty Images

The US National Transport Safety Board warns pilots that it is easy to land at the wrong airport because they look similar and that pilots need “adequate preparation, robust monitoring, and cross-checking of position using all available resources.”

It tells pilots to become familiar with the airport’s layout and features that make it stand out, and to “confirm that you have correctly identified the destination airport before reporting the airport or runway is in sight.”

One former Air Force pilot who teaches aviation safety told The Atlantic how easy it is for pilots to see a runway and assume their automated navigation devices are faulty.

“You’ve got these runway lights, and you are looking at them, and they’re saying: ‘Come to me, come to me. I will let you land.’ They’re like the sirens of the ocean.”