The world’s top 10 airport approaches

Cameras at the ready… private jet booking network PrivateFly.com suggests the world’s Top 10 stunning and inspirational airport approaches.

1. Sion Airport

Nestled in the heart of the Alps, the approach to Sion airport takes you down the Rhone valley. With the high mountain terrain to negotiate, your airline or private jet pilot will be radar vectored by Swiss military air traffic control to the initial approach point, after which the navigation is simple: fly straight down the valley with the cliffs above you, circle the town, and avoid the hospital for a perfect touchdown at Europe’s most stunning airport.

2. St Maarten – Princess Juliana Airport

The Princess Juliana airport on the island of St Maarten (Saint Martin) is exceptionally close to the beach, with private jet aircraft and airliners literally skimming over the heads of holidaymakers. At the end of the runway is the sunset bar area – the ultimate planespotter’s viewing spot. Riding the fence is a local ritual: thrillseekers sit on the fence and hang on while jet blast blows at them as a 747 takes off.

3. St Barts Airport

The Caribbean island of St Barts is just a few minutes connecting flight from Princess Juliana on St Maarten. With a very short runway, it does not cater to international jet flights – only scheduled and private charter propeller services. The approach is thrilling: With very tight angles, hills, unusual wind conditions and the short runway to negotiate, there’s little margin for error and only the most qualified and highly-trained pilots can land there.

4. Gibraltar Airport

Gibraltar airport is owned by the Ministry of Defence as RAF Gibraltar. Private jet operators also use the airport to arrange private jet charter to and from Gibraltar – and civilian airlines for flights to the UK and Spain. The airport has the distinction of being the closest to the city that it serves, being only 500 metres from Gibraltar’s city centre. The runway is actually intersected by a main road which has to be closed every time a plane lands or departs. The rock of Gibraltar looms large on the stunning approach, causing unusual wind patterns and turbulence.

5. St Gallen-Altenrhein Airport

St Gallen-Altenrhein has an idyllic setting between Lake Constance and the alpine foot hills of the Appenzell region in Switzerland. It was built in 1927-1928 by pumping mud from nearby Lake Constance (Bodensee) onto a swampy area close to the shore line. Almost in the middle of this area a turf runway was built, laterally marked on both sides by a ditch which was filled up with yellow gravel from the Jura mountain range on the French border. The airport is used by airlines and for private jet charter flights.

6. Madeira Funchal Airport

The runway at Madeira’s Funchal airport (also known as Santa Catarina) is bordered by water on one side and hills on the other and was rebuilt in 2000 to include a stunning bridge-like extension with 180 supporting pillars over the Atlantic, providing both a dramatic view and additional car parking (underneath!). Before the rebuild, Madeira’s airport was infamous for its short runway which, surrounded by high mountains and the ocean, made it a tricky landing for even the most experienced of pilots. The new runway now allows both airlines and private jets to land at Madeira Funchal.

7. London City Airport

As the closest airport to London’s city centre, the approach to London City airport provides a highly scenic approach over world-famous London landmarks. Air Traffic Control will route you over the London Eye, the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, before sliding you down the side of Canary Wharf with amazing views of the O2 music venue. The approach is unique as the glide path is set at stomach-churning 5.8 degrees as opposed to the usual 3, making for a fairground ride-like buzz. The runway is described by pilots as an ‘aircraft carrier’: relatively short and surrounded by the River Thames. On the ground, London City airport provides some of the best private jet and business aviation services in Europe to its passengers.

8. Lukla Airport

Arriving at Lukla airport in Nepal by private charter propeller aircraft is an exhilarating experience, involving a 10-minute approach down a steep-sided valley followed by a sharp left-hand turn and an uphill landing. A sudden stop is very necessary: With a sheer rock face of hundred metres high at the end of the runway, there is no margin for error. Sirens inform people for miles around when a plane is coming in to land. Lukla airport was built by Sherpas in the 1960s, under instruction from Sir Edmund Hillary, and is the place that most people start their Mount Everest trek.

9. Las Vegas McCarran Airport

The aerial approach to Las Vegas is a truly spectacular one, offering the contrast of desert with a sudden metropolis, unrivalled for sheer size and glamour – even in daylight (though it’s even more dramatic at night). If you are in a private jet you’ll have a panoramic view of Las Vegas and, on the left-hand side of the plane, the world-famous Strip stretches from the Stratosphere at one end to Mandalay Bay at the other. Red Rock canyon is another highlight, just to the West on the approach.

10. Barra Airport

Barra Airport is the only airport in the world where scheduled aircraft land on a beach. The airport is situated on the wide beach of Traigh Mhor, on tiny Barra Island in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. There is a choice of three runways at Barra – so that the propeller aircraft can always land into the wind. Flight times vary as the airport is literally washed away by the tide once a day. If you arrive in late afternoon on a gloomy day (or for emergency night flights) cars may have their lights on to provide pilots with added visibility, since the airport has no artificial lighting. Visitors and cockle-pickers share use of the beach, with signs asking them to observe the windsock to see if the airport is in operation.

Comments (7)

  1. The new runway at Madeira Funchal Airport has made a real difference to accessibility for tourists to the area. Its a definate improvement and a lovely addition!

  2. Love St. Maarten. I could spend a week there plane spotting.

  3. Aurora says:

    Landing at McCarron in Las Vegas is certainly an experience, it’s amazing how close to the strip the hotel is.

  4. irene says:

    i have landed and taken off at madeira funchal airport several times pre 2000 and it was a scary experience particularly if the weather wasn’t great.

  5. Emily M says:

    Yes landing at London City airport is quite a sire and I see London most days! If only windows on planes were bigger!

  6. Funchal says:

    I remember the days when planes taking off from Funchal airport had to stop at nearby Porto Santo to take on more fuel before proceeding with their journey.

    Despite the runway having now been extended, it is still one of the most “interesting” approaches of any airport. Planes usually need to complete a tight 180 degree turn immediately prior to landing.

  7. Barbara says:

    Landing at St Barts can really be an experience – you can see the sea so close, it seems to land on water…

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