WASHINGTON, Jan 17 (Reuters) - The pilots of a Southwest Airlines plane that landed at the wrong airport in Missouri this week told investigators they mistook the bright runway lights of a smaller airport for their intended destination at Branson Airport, the National Transportation Safety Board said on Friday.
The pilots told NTSB investigators they did not realize they were at the wrong airport until they had landed late Sunday, which required heavy braking to get the Boeing 737-700 with 124 passengers aboard stopped on the shorter-than-expected runway, the NTSB said in a statement.
Southwest has suspended the two pilots from flying. The jet landed at M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport instead of at Branson Airport, the main commercial air strip near Branson, which has a much longer runway. The airports are about 7 miles (11 km) apart.
The captain, who has worked for Southwest for 15 years and has about 16,000 flight hours, told investigators it was his first flight into Branson. The first officer, who has been with the airline since 2001, told the NTSB it was his second flight into Branson, but the previous one was during daylight hours.
The pilots said the approach had been programmed into the plane's flight management system, but that they saw the bright runway lights of Clark Downtown Airport and flew a visual approach into what they mistakenly believed to be Branson Airport.
The plane left Chicago Midway Airport on Sunday on a flight to Dallas Love Field with a planned first stop in Branson, a popular musical entertainment and tourism spot in southwest Missouri.
After landing at the wrong airport, the passengers were taken by ground transportation to the correct airport and then flown to Dallas on another jet later on Sunday.
Southwest said it has apologized to the passengers, is refunding the cost of their tickets and giving them travel credits.
The NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration are investigating the incident.
"Safety remains our top priority; once we receive the final NTSB report, we will conduct a thorough review," the airline said in a statement.