Frequent business travelers have airports they love and hate. Pilots are no different. Most of the airports in this story feature a strange twist or two that makes them a challenge for pilots. Others boast unusual features that make them stand out in some other way. Warning: If you are not comfortable flying, if you sweat and break out in hives on a routine flight out of Chicago or Atlanta, stop reading now.
10. Princess Juliana International Airport, Saint Martin
You’ve almost certainly seen videos of landings at this airport posted on social media, with inbound passenger jets just clearing a local beach, a fence and road before setting down on the runway (there’s a good reason Maho Beach is known as “Kerosene Beach”). Plane enthusiasts from around the world travel to this island just to visit the beach and experience these landings, and the locals cater to their desires. Flight schedules are posted around town, and one local bar even broadcasts air traffic control communications between the airport tower and aircraft. There is some risk involved: Signs warn that, “Jet blast of departing and arriving aircraft can cause severe physical harm resulting in extreme bodily harm and/or death.”
9. Gibraltar International Airport
Everything about this airport is surreal, from the massive Rock of Gibraltar towering near the facility, to the runway that extends well out into the Mediterranean Sea, forcing pilots to slam on the brakes every time they land on the relatively short runway. To cap off the stangeness, Gibraltar’s busiest road, Winston Churchill Avenue, crosses the runway and vehicles must wait at railroad-style crossing bars every time a plane lands or departs.
8. Courcheval Airport, France
Landings at Courcheval Airport in the French Alps, are notoriously difficult. First, the towering mountains around the airport make approaches tricky, and also make instrument approaches impossible. Then there is the steep, 18.5% gradient, necessary to let gravity slow planes down on the short, 1,722-foot runway. Given the altitude (6,588 feet) fog is a persistent issue.
7. Dubai International Airport
Dubai International Airport’s Terminal 3 is not only the largest airline terminal in the world, it is the largest building in terms of floor space, covering 18.44 million square feet. (The Pentagon, by comparison, is a measly 6.6 million square feet.) Much of the terminal’s space is located in multiple levels underground, beneath taxiways. Opened in 2008, Terminal 3’s statistics are mind-boggling: it features 180 check-in counters, three hotels, and first class and business-class lounges that can accommodate thousands of passengers at a time. The terminal has a capacity of 43 million passengers a year, which has helped Dubai International become one of the top five busiest airports in the world in terms of passenger traffic.
6. Madeira International Airport
The airport on this Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic opened in 1964, with two short runways. But tragedy struck in 1977, when a passenger jet landing in bad weather went off the end of a runway and crashed on the beach, killing 131 of the 164 people on board. Following the accident, a decision was made to extend the runway by several hundred feet. That helped, but traffic continued to grow, requiring an even long runway, which seemed impossible given the terrain surrounding the airport. In 2000, airport officials adopted a bold engineering solution: they extended the runway more than 3,000 feet on a platform, extending over the ocean on 180 columns, each roughly 230 feet tall. Although the project has been hailed as an engineering wonder, the airport still rated as one of the most dangerous in the world on the 2010 History Channel program, Most Extreme Airports.
5. Denver International Airport
Opened in 1995, this airport has earned numerous awards for its efficiency and operations. But that’s not why DIA makes this list. There are a number of conspiracy theorists who are convinced this airport is not at all what it seems. Where the business traveler sees an efficient, clean airport, some people see bizarre markings dedicated to a New World Order, and speculate that there is a vast underground installation beneath the airport. It didn’t help that the airport construction ran a couple of billion dollars over budget, prompting skeptics to wonder if that money was spent building massive underground structures that could house the elite of society in the event of a worldwide cataclysm. Some rational observers have pointed out that bizarre artwork at the airport, from murals to the strange design on the airport’s roof — white fiberglass structures resembling teepees, meant to evoke the snowcapped peaks of the Rocky Mountains — only encourages the conspiracy crowd.
4. Hong Kong International Airport
Major international airports require a great deal of land. That’s a problem in Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated areas in the world. So when a new airport was needed in the 1980s to replace overcrowded and obsolete Kai Tak Airport, officials decided to build an artificial island in the South China Sea. The airport project leveled two small, hilly islands, and added almost 4 square miles of artificial land around them to create the finished site. Opened in 1998, the airport is the busiest cargo airport in the world, and one of the busiest passenger airports. It’s worth noting that engineers on the project benefitted from seeing a similar artificial island airport built a few years earlier in Japan’s Osaka Bay.
3. Toncontin International Airport, Honduras
Occupying a ridge in the middle of Honduras’ mountainous capital of Tegucigalpa, Toncontin International Airport is feared by pilots and travelers alike. Pilots must work diligently on both takeoffs and landings to avoid the nearby mountainous terrain and rooftops, a task made more difficult in bad weather. At 6,631 feet, the runway is a mile shorter than most international runways. The airport has seen a number of deadly accidents through the years, including a 1989 crash that killed 131 people. Another crash in 2008 that left five dead resulted in some nasty fallout in this Central American nation; when President Manuel Zelaya closed the airport because of safety concerns, local business leaders were incensed. Some observers in that country believe the airport closure was a major factor in sparking a coup that seized power from Zelaya. Toncontin is now open again for business.
2. Congonhas-Sao Paulo Airport, Brazil
Most of the largest airports are built many miles outside urban centers, for several reasons. Land is cheaper, and it’s easier to meet noise restrictions. Of course, it’s also easier for pilots if they don’t have to worry about large skyscrapers while landing and departing. But many older airports that opened in aviation’s early days have seen their city grow around them. Such is the case in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The facility opened in 1936, when Sao Paulo had a population of around 1 million. Today, Sao Paulo is one of the most populated cities in the world, almost 12 million people and growing. Despite the appearances in the above photo, the urban setting poses few problems for pilots, although noise pollution is a major concern at the airport.
1. Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Nepal
In 2010, the History Channel program Most Extreme Airports listed Tenzing-Hillary in Lukla, Nepal, as the most dangerous airport in the world. Just north of the runway, loom mountains. At the southern end of the runway is a precipitous drop into a valley. High winds and cloud cover make approaches unpredictable. And if something goes wrong on the final approach, there is no go-around procedure, given the surrounding mountains. Still, this airport does a brisk business, with many arrivals passing through on their way to climb Mount Everest.