What Happens When You Arrive at the Wrong Airport?

Airport staffs aid travelers who accidentally go astray

By Jesse Geleynse

Published September 4, 2020

Read Time: 4 mins


About a year ago, Leslie Edwards and her husband, Thom, touched down at Kansas City International Airport, hopped into a cab and asked the driver to take them to the River City Casino.

When the driver told them the venue did not exist, Edwards pulled out her phone, searched for the address and proved it did—in St. Louis.

“I have never seen that look on my husband’s face in 20 years,” Edwards recently said with a laugh. “It’s so embarrassing, but it’s hilarious.”

Fortunately for the couple, the concert they planned to attend wasn’t until the following day, so they rented a car and made the three-and-a-half-hour drive across Missouri to St. Louis.

“When you’re traveling, you have a million things on your mind,” Edwards said. “It’s not just the plane; it’s where you’re going to stay, and that’s important because it has to be in close proximity to the other things you’re going to be doing when you’re there. There are so many things you are thinking about.”

Travel mix-ups are rare, but they do happen. Passengers book the wrong flight, show up at the wrong departure airport and even touch down at the wrong destination.

Generally, the first stop for confused travelers is the customer service help desk. At Pittsburgh International Airport, that department is overseen by Elise Gomez, the Customer Experience Manager.

“Our staff is knowledgeable about everything that’s going on at the airport,” Gomez said. “(Travelers) check with us and see if we have information for them. If not, we send them up to the airline because they’re ultimately the ones who can verify them in the system or book them on the appropriate flight.”

A fairly frequent mix-up in Pittsburgh happens when passengers book a trip that takes off from Arnold Palmer Regional Airport in Latrobe, only to arrive at PIT and wonder why they can’t find their flight listed under Departures. At more than 60 miles apart, it’s often not possible for passengers to make it to Latrobe in time for their flight, necessitating changes to their reservations with the appropriate airline.

“(The airlines) are pretty attentive to the passenger. Once we send them up to the ticket counter, the airlines will usually handle any reservation changes,” Gomez said.

Occasionally, more complicated situations can occur, like the time a woman showed up with her daughter to pick up her husband at PIT. The man thought he had arrived in Pittsburgh, but was actually in Philadelphia, Gomez said.

Dallas-Fort Worth International (DFW) and Dallas Love Field (DAL) are located 16 miles apart. (Photo courtesy of DFW)

Arriving at the wrong location is a more frequent occurrence in places with two major airports, like Dallas, where passengers sometimes confuse Dallas-Fort Worth International and Dallas Love Field, which are about 16 miles apart.

“That’s an easier fix,” said Ricky Griffin, the experience hub manager at DFW. “They get in the car or take an Uber and go to Love Field.”

But Dallas has, on rare occasions, been confused for Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C. Griffin says that can happen when a third party books the reservation and mishears the desired destination.

“There’s been a number of occasions where that’s happened, and obviously that can be scary for people,” Griffin said. “Luckily it doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen. We’ve got a dedicated team that’s available to assist customers 24/7 when they arrive so they can call us and we can get in touch with our appropriate (airline) partners to get them where they need to be.”

Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway airports are located about 18 miles apart. (Photo courtesy of the Chicago Department of Aviation)

Some airlines charge reservation change fees, but Gomez and Griffin both said they have not heard much in the way of complaints about those fees. And the fact remains that these issues are rare enough that they can almost always be handled at the local level.

“I’ve heard about it… but it hasn’t been anything reported to us,” said Charles Leocha of Travelers United, a traveler advocacy group. “What normally ends up happening is the gate agent at the wrong airport where people show up to take off normally can just change (the reservation)… It just doesn’t happen that often.”

To avoid these sorts of booking mix-ups, both Gomez and Griffin recommend using the IATA airport code, rather than just the city, when making reservations. The three-letter code for every airport is unique to that facility.

But it’s important to remember a travel mix-up is not always the worst-case scenario. In the Edwards’ case, it added to the experience of the trip.

“We laughed the entire drive, all the way to St. Louis, (and) we laughed all the way home,” Leslie Edwards said. “Had this been cross-country, I don’t think we would have been laughing so hard, but because it was just a three-and-a-half-hour thing and it didn’t really mess up our trip, we howled about it.”

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