In nearly all the incidents, the pilots were cleared by controllers to guide the plane based on what they could see rather than relying on automation. Many incidents occur at night, with pilots reporting they were attracted by the runway lights of the first airport they saw during descent. Some pilots said they disregarded navigation equipment that showed their planes slightly off course because the information didn't match what they were seeing out their windows—a runway straight ahead.
"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," said Michael Barr, a former Air Force pilot who teaches aviation safety at the University of Southern California.
Using NASA's Aviation Safety Reporting System, along with news accounts and reports sent to other federal agencies, the AP tallied 35 landings and 115 approaches or aborted landing attempts at wrong airports by commercial passenger and cargo planes over more than two decades.
The tally doesn't include every event. Many are not disclosed to the media, and reports to the NASA database are voluntary. The Federal Aviation Administration investigates wrong airport landings and many near-landings, but those reports aren't publicly available. FAA officials turned down a request by The Associated Press for access to those records, saying some may include information on possible violations of safety regulations by pilots and might be used in an enforcement action.
(Read more: Uh Oh! 'Dreamlifter' lands at wrong airport)
NASA, on the other hand, scrubs its reports of identifying information to protect confidentiality, including names of pilots, controllers and airlines. While the database is operated by the space agency, it is paid for by the FAA and its budget has been frozen since 1997, said database director Linda Connell. As a result, fewer incident reports are being entered even though the volume of reports has soared, she said.
The accounts that are available paint a picture of repeated close calls, especially in parts of the country where airports are situated close together with runways similarly angled, including Nashville and Smyrna in Tennessee, Tucson and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Arizona, and several airports in South Florida.
In a report filed last July, for example, an airline captain described how his MD-80 was lined up to land at what he thought was San Antonio International Airport when a rider in the cockpit's jump seat "shouted out that we were headed for Lackland Air Force Base." The first officer, who was flying the plane, quickly aborted the landing and circled around to line up for the correct airport. The captain later thanked the cockpit passenger and phoned the San Antonio tower. "They did not seem too concerned," he reported, "and said this happens rather frequently there."