Posted by: Viktor Mar | 2010 June 29

World’s oddest airports

The airstrip at Courchevel // . (RG Williamson, Rex)

RG Williamson, Rex

The airstrip at Courchevel

The Alpine ski resort of Courchevel may be famous for its black runs – but surely no piste is as hairy as the flight on to the resort’s airstrip. The runway at the so-called altiport is little more than a tarmac ski jump clinging to the side of a mountain slope.

Pilots, who need special certification to land at the airfield, circle close to ridges before landing uphill at an angle of 11 degrees. If you mess up the approach, there is no "going around" to try again: at the other end of the runway a ridge rises to 2,600 metres.

Take-off is just as fun: you roll down the short runway and "jump" out into the valley. Bon voyage.

Pyongyang terminal // . (AP, PA)


Pyongyang terminal

If airports are the gateway to your travels, there’s no doubt who the gatekeeper is in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea. A picture of the late Great Leader, Kim Il Sung, keeps a watchful eye on you from high up in the concrete airport terminal, as well as on the bright red tailfins of Air Koryo’s tiny fleet of Tupolev and Ilyushin jets.

Inside the terminal, it’s a trip back to the 70s. The floors are polished brown, the walls mottled beige, and a digital mechanical departure board clicks with every passing second. At a "duty free shop", Korean cigarettes and spirits are displayed neatly behind a counter. Most haunting are the stylised images of Korean landscapes – the gushing waterfalls, jagged peaks and unnaturally blue lakes seem like a wild, romanticised vision of a country obsessed with itself.

 plane approaches Saba in this 1950s shot // . (Don Cravens, Getty)

Don Cravens, Getty

A plane approaches Saba in this 1950s shot

How do you touch down on a volcanic island? The answer, unless you’re a Bond villain, in which case presumably you head straight for the centre of the crater, is to build a scarily tiny runway – one like that forming part of Juancho E Yrausquin airport, on the Caribbean island of Saba, in the Netherland Antilles.

The shortest commercial runway in the world is only 400m long and perched on a headland poking out from the mountain, with sheer cliffs at both ends; if your aircraft is fully loaded, you’ll be taking off straight over the cliff, and (whoah!) may even dip a bit before you start to climb.

Pilots need a waiver to fly here – but any passengers brave enough to accompany them will be rewarded with startling views of the island’s volcano rising straight out of the sea.

plane on the tarmac at Gibraltar airport // . (JAVIER BARBANCHO, AP, 


A plane on the tarmac at Gibraltar airport

Spare a thought for the good citizens of Gibraltar. There’s so little space on the Rock for an airport that the main road into the territory, Winston Churchill Avenue, crosses the runway. Every time a plane lands or takes off, the road is closed to traffic, causing queues of vehicles that snake back and snarl up the roads.

Happily for the locals, plans are afoot to build a tunnel under the airstrip – so if you want to experience the weird phenomenon of rolling down a runway as motorists wait patiently for you to pass, you’d better get here soon.

Welcome sign at Koh Samui airport // Welcome sign at Koh Samui 
airport (Lonely Planet Dennis Johnson)

Lonely Planet Dennis Johnson

Welcome sign at Koh Samui airport

You know you’re in Thailand when the airport terminal building looks like a tropical beach resort. When it was built, in the 1980s, Samui airport, on the island of Koh Samui, was little more than a group of huts. The airport has been recently redeveloped along the same theme, with open-air pavilions designed to blend in with the surrounding coconut palms.

The updated pavilions are built from glass, rattan and palm. As you enjoy a Thai massage before you board the plane, you might spare a thought for the crowds in the lines at stuffy Gatwick and Heathrow.

The beach airport at Barra // . (Lonely Planet Charlotte Hindle)

Lonely Planet Charlotte Hindle

The beach airport at Barra

If you like soft landings, book a flight from Glasgow to the island of Barra, in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland – where your plane will touch down not on tarmac, but on a sandy beach.

The beach in question is Traigh Mor, a semicircular bay so large it can accommodate three "runways" – marked at each end with wooden posts sticking out of the sand.

Signs warn local cockle-pickers to "keep off the beach when the windsock is flying and the airport is active" – although for most visitors, the main attraction is watching the planes taking off and landing along the open sands.

airborne view of the Himalayas // . (Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler)

Lonely Planet, Tony Wheeler

An airborne view of the Himalayas

If you fancy ascending to the top of the world, book a flight to Qamdo Bangda airport, in Tibet. The airport is not only the highest in the world, at 4,334 metres, but also sports the longest runway, at 5.5km. The reason is pure physics: the higher you go, the thinner the air becomes and the more runway you need to take off.

If you land at the airport, you’ll be met with great Himalayan views – but bizarrely, the town of Qamdo will be nowhere to be seen. That’s because the airport is in fact two-and-a-half hours’ drive from town – along twisting, dramatic mountain roads.

Whakatane airport has a distinctive 'smiley face' turret // . 
(Michael Dwyer/AP/PA)

Michael Dwyer/AP/PA

Whakatane airport has a distinctive ‘smiley face’ turret

Beautiful or bizarre? That’s the question you may well ask yourself when you arrive on a flight from Auckland at tiny Whakatane airport, New Zealand – where the terminal building, designed in the 70s by the architect Roger Walker, is one of the most unusual in the world.

With its "smiley-face" turret, glowing yellow pillars and giant bricks, the terminal rather resembles a drive-in fast-food restaurant built out of Lego. Stop a while to admire it, but don’t forget your luggage, which arrives on a trolley straight from the plane. You just grab your bag and away you go.

High-angle view of Lord Howe island // High-angle view of Lord Howe
 island (Richard I'Anson, Lonely Planet)

Richard I’Anson, Lonely Planet

High-angle view of Lord Howe island

Pilots have very little room for maneuvers when they fly on to Lord Howe Island, in the south Pacific between Australia and New Zealand. The runway at the airport stretches virtually the entire width of the island, from the sheltered lagoon at the western end of the runway to the wilder surfing beaches to the east.

Most dramatically of all, green hills rise steeply on both sides of the runway before sloping down to the ocean. As you land, you’re on the only stretch of flat ground for hundreds of miles around.



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