A reader writes:
"I just thought you might like to know that while the airplane overflying Minneapolis received major headlines, the Delta airplane which landed on a taxiway in Atlanta earlier this week received minimal coverage. As you can imagine the taxiway landing is much more of a close call (that is a greater chance of casualties) than overflying an airport at altitude. As I've come to expect from the press there is no perspective on the relative danger of either incident. Somewhat similar to focusing on shark attacks while we kill approximately 40,000 every year on our roads.
"As an A-320 captain I don't mean to throw stones at either crew (there but for the grace of God...)... As to the Atlanta taxiway incident there were multiple factors including a long overnight flight, a sick check airman who was in the back, and a change of runway inside the marker [well into the plane's final descent, shortly before landing] to a runway without approach lighting... But it is interesting that one incident is totally ignored while the other gets major media play."
Google Earth view of approach to runway 27R at Atlanta. Where they should have landed is the runway at center of this view, with the chevron markers on black background pointing towards it. Where they actually landed was the taxiway just to its right. This happened in the dark. At night the taxiway would have blue lights and the runway white lights.
Why a taxiway landing is potentially much more dangerous: another airplane could theoretically be turning onto the taxiway just as the incoming plane was touching down, raising the prospect of a repeat of the deadliest accident in aviation history, the collision of two fully-loaded 747s on the runway at Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, in 1977. Why the current "overflight" incident, despite its safe conclusion, has gotten attention: for what it may show about pilot-fatigue and work-rule questions (plus the melodrama factor of passengers sitting, reading, dozing innocently while things in the cockpit are not as they should be; plus the melodrama factor of controllers, hearing nothing from the plane, not knowing whether it was another hijacking/terrorist episode). Why news coverage does not follow statistical risk of danger: this is life.