After passengers were let off the jet Sunday evening, they noticed that the airliner had come dangerously close to the end of the runway, where it could have tumbled down a steep embankment if it had left the pavement.
"As soon as we touched down, the pilot applied the brake very hard and very forcibly," said passenger Scott Schieffer, a Dallas attorney who was among the 124 passengers aboard Southwest Flight 4013 from Chicago's Midway Airport to the Branson airport. "I was wearing a seatbelt, but I was lurched forward because of the heavy pressure of the brake. You could smell burnt rubber, a very distinct smell of burnt rubber as we were stopping."
Branson Airport has a runway that is more than 7,100 feet long - a typical size for commercial traffic. The longest runway at Taney County Airport is only slightly more than 3,700 feet because it is designed for small private planes.
After the jet stopped, a flight attendant welcomed passengers to Branson, Schieffer said. Then, after a few moments, "the pilot came on and said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'm sorry to tell you we landed at the wrong airport.'"
At first, Schieffer said, he considered it only an inconvenience. But once he got off the plane, someone pointed to the edge of the runway, which he estimated as about 100 feet away.
"It was surreal when I realized we could have been in real danger and instead of an inconvenience, it could have been a real tragedy," he said.
Mark Parent, manager of the smaller airport also known as M. Graham Clark Downtown Airport, described the distance as closer to 300 feet. He said the runway is built partly on landfill. At the end there is a "significant drop-off," with a ravine beneath it, then busy U.S. 65 on the other side.
He said a Boeing 737 had never landed at the small airfield, which opened in 1970 and normally handles light jets, turboprops and small aircraft for the charter, corporate and tourism markets.
No one was around at the airport when the Southwest flight landed. Airport staffers had gone home about an hour earlier but were called back after the unexpected arrival, Parent said.
Brad Hawkins, a spokesman for Dallas-based Southwest, said everyone aboard the jet was safe. He did not know why the plane went to the wrong airport.
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Tony Molinaro said the agency was investigating, but he declined to elaborate.
Jeff Bourk, executive director of Branson Airport, said the Southwest pilot was in communication with the airport tower, which cleared him to land around 6 p.m. The plane touched down a few moments later at the other airport.
Skies were clear at the time, with the temperature in the 50s, Bourk said.
Passengers were loaded on buses for the 7-mile trip to Branson. Southwest brought in another plane for passengers flying on to Love Fiend in Dallas. That flight departed around 10 p.m., Bourke said.
Hawkins said the aircraft involved in the mistaken landing should be able to take off from the smaller runway, though it was not clear when that would occur.
The minimum runway length needed to take off varies depending on a plane's weight, the temperature and other factors. Based on Boeing documents, a lightly loaded 737-700 can take off from a runway about the length of the M. Graham Clark airport.
Parent said he had no doubts that the plane would be able to take off safely.
Sunday's event was the second time in less than two months that a large jet has landed at the wrong airport.
In November, a freight-carrying Boeing 747 that was supposed to deliver parts to McConnell Air Force Base in Wichita, Kan., landed 9 miles north at Col. James Jabara Airport. The company that operated the flight later said in a training video that the crew was skeptical about the plane's automation after the co-pilot's flight display had intermittent trouble, and the pilot chose to fly visually when he spotted the brightly lit runway at Jabara.
Last year, a cargo plane bound for MacDill Air Force base in Tampa, Fla., landed without incident at the small Peter O. Knight Airport nearby. An investigation blamed confusion identifying airports in the area, and base officials introduced an updated landing procedure.
The airline announced last month that it would end service in June in Branson, Key West, Fla., and Jackson, Miss., because it can't make money in those smaller markets.
Associated Press airlines reporter David Koenig and AP transportation reporter Joan Lowy contributed to this report.