Frequent travellers probably have a list of favourite airports. These are the places where you don’t mind whiling away a six-hour delay, or 12-hour layover; the airports where the facilities can help make you feel human again, and a quick bite to eat doesn’t empty the bank. The cost and quality of food, a range of shopping, clean and comfortable amenities, and a user-friendly design, are the simple things that make a regular flyer happy.
But there’s one type of frequent flyer who cares more about the outside of an airport, than what’s on the inside: a pilot. When it’s your job to safely deliver passengers from one destination to the next, the type of terrain surrounding an airport’s runway is more important than whether there’s free wi-fi.
Of all modes of transportation, airplanes are statistically the safest way to travel, and pilots wouldn’t stick around in the job if they thought otherwise. That said, some airports are easier to land at than others. In fact, some airports are so tricky that even pilots get the jitters.
Consider airfields where congestion, geography, winds, altitude, and other factors can seriously affect the approach. These are the airports that test a pilot’s judgment and fill them with a sense of dread. On the other hand, there are plenty more airports around the globe that give pilots such a kick, they’d probably fly there for fun.
Read on to find out which airports have pilots clenching in their seats, and which are the airports that remind them why they love the job.
When it comes to close shaves, this airport on the Caribbean island of Sint Maarten (Saint Martin) is famous. The runway is so close to the adjacent Maho beach that planes fly just a few dozen metres over the heads of tourists, who are simply chilling out on the sand.
Another interesting, but way less worrying, feature of this airport is that it’s actually split into two, as is the island itself - one part belongs to France, the other to the Netherlands.
To date, there has been one person who died from a jet landing at the airport. In July 2017, a New Zealand woman was lifted off the ground from the force of the jet blast. Sadly, her injuries were fatal.
Toncontín is considered by many to be among the most dangerous airports in the world, due to its short runways and close proximity to mountainous terrain. Built in the 1920s, this airport has seen no fewer than 10 accidents during its lifespan, with the most serious occurring in 2008.
As a result of rainy conditions, a plane carrying 124 passengers was unable to stop on time at the end of the runway and several people perished. Following the accident, the airport was closed for a year after an inspection from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), according to msn.com.
This tiny British territory to the south of Spain has an equally tiny airport with one massive problem: an actual road running straight through the landing strip.
It’s fair to say that space is in short supply on Gibraltar, and not only does its 5,500-ft runway jet out of the harbour, it intersects with the city’s main street, Winston Churchill Avenue, which has to be closed every time a plane takes off or lands.
The short runway also abruptly ends at the sea on both ends, forcing pilots to hit the brakes immediately after landing.
Located in the chic French ski town of Courchevel, this airport’s runway measures just 1,722 ft, has a downward gradient of 18.5% and a vertical drop off the side of a mountain. Yikes.
There is no second chance landing here - pilots must make it perfectly the first time. And to make matters worse, this airport offers no lights or instrument aid, so in bad weather, landing is impossible.
On the plus side, only private planes can land here, so unless you’re a pilot for the super-luxe jet set (or a paid-up member of it), you won’t be flying here anytime soon.
This California airport is located downtown, which occasionally makes for a nail-biting descent as the plane plunges right toward the heart of the city. Arriving flights typically land to the west, which means passengers get a too-close-for-comfort view of downtown office buildings and parking decks.
Plus, pilots report frequent gusty tailwinds that can require quick adjustments on approach. Mountains to the north and east also add to the fear factor.
This is the main international airport for the Maldives, so if you want to dip your toes in the pristine azure waters of this tropical paradise, you’ll have to stomach the gut-wrenching landing first.
Male International Airport is daunting for pilots because the runway lies just two metres above sea level, according to the BBC, taking up the entire length of Hulhule Island in the North Male Atoll. Any minor miscalculation could send the plane careening off into the Indian Ocean, which isn’t the idyllic first swim that holidaymakers had in mind.
Bhutan's only international airport is surrounded by 18,000-foot peaks and lush greenery, but the approach to the airport is so dramatic and perilous that only 17 qualified pilots are authorised to land there, according to Condé Nast Traveller.
Flights into Paro Airport restricted to daylight hours only, and in order to safely land on the 6,500-foot-long strip, airplanes come within close proximity of several homes during the descent. One red cliffside home is even a key focal point for pilots on their approach.
If you want to brave climbing Mount Everest, you might first have to brave the landing at Tenzing-Hillary Airport, formerly known as Lukla Airport.
Positioned in the Himalayan mountains, this 9,325ft-high airport is named after the first two climbers that scaled Everest and is the most popular base camp for trekkers to the region.
It has small one direction runway that is only 1,600ft long with a 12 percent incline, and at one end is a mountain wall and the other is a dramatic 2,000-foot plunge into the valley.
Strong winds make the pilots’ job even harder - as if needed. It's no wonder a 2010 History Channel documentary rated Tenzing Hillary Airport as the world's most dangerous.
Named after Madeira’s most famous native, Cristiano Ronaldo, this island airport made the headlines after unveiling a statue of the football star, but it looked nothing like him. As awkward as that is, it’s got nothing on the difficult manoeuvres pilots have to pull to land on the airport’s runway, which extends into the ocean and is held up with 180 pillars.
The airport's proximity to the Atlantic Ocean makes for a stomach-turning descent and pilots must avoid the sea and rocks, while also braving strong sea winds. This is why the Telegraph has included it on its list of the scariest airports in the world.
LaGuardia Airport is America's 20th busiest airport, according to a study by the Federal Aviation Administration, and roughly 30 million passengers travel through the airport every year.
This means that LaGuardia’s airspace is crowded, and pilots have to land within minutes of each other on intersecting and relatively short (7,000) runways. Combine that with wind shear from the nearby ocean, it all adds up to an unpleasant landing experience for pilots.
In 2015, a passenger jet skidded off a runway at LaGuardia and crashed into a nearby fence - thankfully, with only minor injuries reported.
The tiny Hebridean island of Barra, off the west coast of Scotland, is the only place in the world where scheduled flights land on the beach.
The short runway, which is marked out with wooden poles, is built on the wide beach of Traigh Mhor and is completely covered by the sea during high tides - flights are scheduled around the sea level.
The airport is not usually used at night, but in case of emergency, vehicles park along the runway with their lights on to help improve the pilot’s disability and help with take-off.
This airport features a one-lane, 6,351-ft runway that appears to start and end in the water, and although the runway itself is built on low-lying land by the sea, it’s incredibly close to the city’s suburbs and surrounding mountains.
The tricky approach through the mountainous area is well known for its unpredictable air currents and strong crosswinds, which makes it extremely difficult to manoeuvre landings. And watch out for those hurricane force gusts once you disembark. Sounds fun.
Often regarded as one of the most scenic approaches in the world, it’s also one of the highest at 10,600 ft above sea level, and in the heart of the Himalaya range. In fact, according to Culture Trip, it’s the world’s 18th highest commercial airport.
The airport is named after the statesman and monk, 19th Kushok Bakula Rinpoche, and although it was previously operated by the Indian Air Force, the Airports Authority of India took over in February 2016 in order to open the airport up for civilian purposes.
What fills pilots with dread, when it comes to landing here, are the strong mountain winds, which mean that flights can only operate in the morning.
Located in the southern part of Greenland, sandwiched between countless Fjords and sea, this airport runway is one of the most difficult in the world for any pilot.
The runway is only 1,800 meters and canvassed in slick ice. It struggles with low visibility and violent winds, which cause severe turbulence even on the calmest of days. Oh, and there’s an active volcano nearby which commonly erupts, sending ash into the clouds which can stall and destroy engines. Good times.
This Washington DC airport borders two overlapping no-fly zones, and pilots have to fly what’s known as a “river visual” into the airport, following the Potomac River while steering clear of sensitive sites such as the Pentagon. It can make for quite the bumpy ride.
In 2011, a commercial airliner accidentally swooped into one of the no-fly zones around the Capitol, triggering an evacuation of the complex and the scrambling of fighter jets from Andrews Air Force Base, according to Politico. Oops.
When The Telegraph quizzed a clutch of pilots about their favourite airports to touch down in last year, one name that kept coming up was Naples. According to pilots, the views during descent and approach are breathtaking. Plus, there is just the right number of technical challenges to keep a pilot on their toes, without freaking them totally out.
"I enjoy the challenges this airport brings due to the steeper than normal approaches to both runways. The approach to Runway 06 is also offset requiring a visual transition to line up with the runway centreline," said one pilot.
On a clear day, the views of the UK capital, while approaching Runways 27L and 27R from the north, are truly stunning - so much so that they inspired one commercial airline pilot to record a video of his landing.
The video went viral and the pilot told the Daily Mail that his “office” has the best view of “the world's greatest city.” Also describing how he “tipped his hat to the Queen” when passing Windsor, the pilot, who gives his name as JB, flies in and out of the London airport four or five times a month.
Hamilton Island is the sort of destination you might never want to leave. The gateway to the Great Barrier Reef, this idyllic paradise is home to some incredible wildlife, spectacular reefs and breathtaking panoramas, and to get there you have to soar over turquoise waters speckled with tropical islands.
It's a sight that evokes excitement even in the most seasoned of pilots, one Qantas pilot told The Telegraph.
The approach into Innsbruck is technically tricky because the airport is surrounded by Alpine peaks and the descent is steep. In fact, only pilots with the necessary training requirements are allowed to land there. But according to the pilots who spoke to traveller.com.au, it’s well worth the extra effort.
“Innsbruck is one of the most challenging airports we fly to at British Airways; it requires extra simulator training as it is so technical,” one BA pilot told the website.
“I love the challenge of a different style of approach, and the breath-taking views as you descend into the valley. It's such a rewarding feeling when you land into such a beautiful corner of the earth."
Las Vegas is renowned for its cartoonish, larger-than-life architecture that juts out of the surrounding desert like some kind of crazy hallucination. When you arrive from the air, especially at night, the Las Vegas strip looks like some type of miniature toy town, and pilots get the best view out of everyone on the plane.
If you want the best views, flight crew recommend sitting on the right side of the plane, according to the Daily Mail.
When pilots were quizzed about their favourite airports on AskReddit, the name Hong Kong popped up a number of times. The aerial view of the city, with its tiny islands rising up from the sea, its state-of-the-art cityscape, surrounded by lush, green rolling hills, is a remarkable sight to behold.
Plus, landing is just enough of a challenge to keep it interesting. Weather conditions at Hong Kong’s airport are generally considered challenging because of low-level wind shear, meaning a pronounced change in wind direction or speed affects a landing or take-off, according to the South China Morning Post.
According to Travel & Leisure, one airport stands out for pilots and flight crew around the world, and that’s Singapore’s Changi Airport. It doesn’t necessarily have the best views on approach, but the airport itself has unbeatable facilities and design. It’s a just a cool and comfortable place to fly into. In fact, some of the praise even verged on the elegiac: “Singapore Changi Airport wins everything hands-down.”
The attractions for anyone who finds themselves there include free movie theatres that are open 24/7, free internet and if you don’t have your laptop, no worries they have free computer terminals. It does sound pretty great.
After a long, quiet overnight journey across Europe, and from one end of Africa to the other, there's nothing quite like the sight of Table Mountain just as dawn breaks over Cape Town.
From the air, looking out at one of the world's most beautiful intersections of land and sea, it's obvious why this city remains one of the most popular destinations for crew.
This is why, when private jet booking service PrivateFly polled over 3,000 high flyers on their favourite spot to land, Cape Town came out in the top 10.
It might be small, but Santa Barbara Municipal Airport sure is pretty. Compact, well-organised and relaxed, pilots raved about this place in a Lonely Planet rundown of their favourite airports.
“As far as small airports go, I loved Santa Barbara. I took a nap under one of the trees waiting for security to open once,” one user posted. Its architecture and interior design also drew many comments, with the Spanish-style tiling on the staircase featuring regularly on Instagram feeds.
Every year, PrivateFly.com asks pilots around the world to vote for their favourite airport landings before a panel of judges picks the best 10. Making it on to the Top 10 Most Stunning Airport Approaches for 2018 was Queenstown Airport, which is sandwiched between stunning snowcapped mountains on either side, with the beautiful Lake Wakatipu stretching out before it.
It’s proper Lord of the Rings country, and there’s no other airport like it. No wonder pilots remain awestruck by its beauty.
References: msn; cntraveler; forbes; telegraph.co.uk