The world’s most extreme airports
Commercial aviation has allowed access to pretty much every corner of our planet.
The construction of airports in the most extreme destinations has opened up a world of possibilities for those travelers that like to break records and collect milestones.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the most extreme airports around the world, from the Himalayan heights to the heat of the desert, from one Pole to the other.
We hope adventurous fliers will find some inspiration here.
The military outpost of Alert, on the northern tip of Ellesmere Island in the Nunavut territory of Canada, is not only the world’s northernmost permanently inhabited settlement, but also home to the most northern airfield on Earth.
Sadly, it’s out of bounds for the general public.
The farthest north you can get on a regular commercial flight is Svalbard Airport, Longyear, on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard, located around halfway between the North Pole and the European mainland.
However, not to be outdone in Arctic matters, the Russians have on occasion landed airliners right next to the North Pole. Antonov An-74 aircraft operated by Russian airline Utair use a makeshift runway on the drifting ice in their supply runs to Ice Camp Barneo.
You can’t fly further south than the Jack F. Paulus Skiway.
This is because this runway, used by US Air Force C-130 cargo aircraft to resupply the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, is located right by the South Pole.
There are other landing strips in Antarctica, mostly used for scientific missions, but they also receive the occasional charter tourist flight.
However, there are no regular commercial flights to Antarctica. For this, you need to go to the tip of the American landmass.
The southernmost airport with regular commercial traffic is Guardiamarina Zañartu at Puerto Williams, on the southern tip of Chile. Although primarily a military airfield, small local airline Aerovias DAP flies from here to Punta Arenas, in the Chilean Patagonia.
The nearby Argentinian city of Ushuaia, just to the north across a narrow sea channel from Puerto Williams, can claim to be the major air gateway to this remote region, though. Its international airport enjoys more frequent long-distance jet services to the mainland.
Since its inauguration in 2013, Daocheng Yading Airport in China’s Sichuan province holds the title of the world’s highest airport.
In fact, four of the five highest airports in the world are in Chinese territory.
Its location in a barren plateau at 4,411 meters altitude, together with its contemporary terminal that resembles a flying-saucer, give this airport an otherworldly aspect.
Daocheng Yading Airport has regular airline services to the provincial capital, Chengdu, about one hour’s flight away, as well as to several other destinations in southern and central China.
The Dead Sea, in Israel, is the lowest point on the surface of Earth.
Consequently, Bar Yehuda Airfield, located right on its shore, at 1,240 feet (378 meters) below sea level, is the world’s lowest airport.
This airport doesn’t have any regular airline service, though.
The most isolated
This is the world’s most remote airport: From here it is 1,617 miles (2,603 kilometers) westward to Totegegie Airport in French Polynesia. The Chilean mainland is even further away in the eastward direction: It takes 2,336 miles (3,759 kilometers) to reach Santiago’s airport.
In the past few years, the Middle East has been a super-hot region for the aviation industry and not just figuratively.
In June 2017 it was reported that Ahvaz International Airport, in southeast Iran, had recorded a record temperature of 129.2 F (54 C). If verified, this would match the hottest temperature ever recorded on Earth in modern times: 129.2F readings in Mitribah, Kuwait in July 2016, and Death Valley, California in June 2013.
In July 2016, the thermometer also reached 129 F (53.9 C) at an airport, but in this case in Basra, in southern Iraq.
Deep inside Siberia, the village of Oymyakon, in Russia’s Sakha Republic (an autonomous region 12 times the size of the UK) is reputed as being the coldest place on Earth, with recorded temperatures that have reached – 89.9 F (- 67.7 C).
No wonder, then, that the regional capital Yakutsk has a strong claim to having the coldest airport in the world, with average winter temperatures around – 38 F (- 39 C).
One can only wonder what the aircraft de-icing invoice looks like.
Comparing airports by surface area can be a tricky business, as there’s no standard way to account for the land taken by the airport, its auxiliary infrastructure or even land reserves for future development.
King Fahd International Airport, in Saudi Arabia, claims a total of 78,000 hectares, which would place it on the top spot by a wide margin. However, the area actually developed for airport uses is but a fraction of that: 3,675 hectares.
This would place Denver International on the top spot, with 13,726 hectares. As a reference, London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, occupies 1,227 hectares.
But if what counts in the aviation business is traffic, then Atlanta-Hartsfield is the global leader, both in number of passengers, close to 104 million in 2017, and aircraft movements, 898,356 in 2016.
Usually the highest point in any airport is the air control tower (ATC).
Standing at 133.8 meters (438 feet, 11.71 inches), Tower West at Kuala Lumpur International Airport is the world’s tallest air traffic control.
Enough to grant it a place on this list as the world’s tallest airport.
The shortest runway
Although it’s hard to single out the smallest airport in the world, the contest for shortest runway has a clear winner.
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport on the beautiful island of Saba in the Dutch Antilles has the shortest runway supporting regular commercial operations.
The airport was built on the only flat space on this volcanic island, its runway dramatically clinging to the side of a steep mountain, appearing to incoming aircraft not unlike the deck of an aircraft carrier.
Pilots must hold a special certification in order to be allowed to land here.
The longest runway
At 5,500 meters in length, Qamdo Bamda Airport, in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China, holds the record of being the longest paved airport runway in use in the world.
The very long runway is a requirement dictated by the need to compensate the reduction in engine and lift performance that aircraft experience when taking off and landing at very high altitudes.
Until the inauguration of Daocheng Yading Airport, Qamdo Bamda was also the highest airport in the world, at 4,334 meters altitude.
Last but not least… Amid this succession of facts and figures we couldn’t forget the metric that, ultimately, matters the most.
Which is the airport with the happiest fliers?
Finnish company HappyOrNot says it has the answer, thanks to its 25,000 customer satisfaction terminals which dot airports around the world.
And the winner is… Exeter Airport.