Travels to extreme airports


* Viajes a aeropuertos extremos

One hundred thousand kilometers of paved roads are not able to lead us to whatever location in the world we may want to go; a pair of runways can. Here are some of the extreme points to where the modern international air carrier network is capable of transporting any traveler armed with a little of adventurous spirit.

To enter into context, we could give a more or less average example: Silvio Pettirossi International Airport in Asunción, Paraguay, known worldwide by the code "ASU", assigned by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), has one paved (two thresholds) runway 11 001 feet (3353 m) long, is at an elevation of 292 feet (89 m) above mean sea level and is located at a distance of 576 nautical miles (1067 km) from Ezeiza International Airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina (code EZE), and 615 nautical miles (1139 km) from Guarulhos International Airport at São Paulo, Brazil (code GRU). Through that airport pass a little more than one million passengers per year, in tens of flights per day.


Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport at Atlanta, USA, (IATA code: ATL) is the busiest airport on planet Earth. Each year, more than 900 000 flights use its 5 runways (10 thresholds), an average of 1 flight every 35 seconds. In 2015 more than 100 million passengers passed through its 207 embarking and disembarking gates. Although the airport is not the one receiving the highest number of international passengers (that honor belongs to Heathrow airport, London, IATA: LHR), due to its geographical location Atlanta's airport is the main interconnection point for trips to many destinations within the United States of America, a country where one third of the global air traffic circulates. One detail that exemplifies the size of this mega-airport is that the control tower is as tall as a 40 story building.


Ushuaia International Airport (USH) is at 54 degrees 51 minutes S. Though remote, it has already received aircraft like the Boeing 747 and even the Concorde, carrying tourists to connect them with cruise ships departing from there on their way to Antarctica.


Longyearbyen Airport (LYR) in Svalbard, an island in Norway, is the one furthest to the North (78 degrees 15 min N) but still receiving regular airline service (in its case, companies Norwegian and SAS).


Bangda's Airport (BPX), Tibet, located at 14 219 feet (4334 m) above mean sea level, is the highest commercial airport in the world. In this place there are so few molecules of air that aircraft need a very long takeoff run to rise from the ground; that is why the longest commercial runway in the world is also located there: it has 18 045 feet (5500 m). Air China operates there with a slightly modified Boeing 757.


Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (AMS) in The Netherlands, shares a feature with much of this unusual country: it is below sea level, specifically at an elevation of -11 feet (-3 m).


Mataveri International Airport in Easter Island, Chile (IPC) is 2030 nautical miles (3759 km) away from the nearest alternative for airliners, the airport of Santiago de Chile (SCL). The only other neighboring international airport (but toward the opposite side) is the Faa’a airport, at Papeete (PPT), Tahiti, French Polynesia, distant 2297 nautical miles (4254 km) away. If going from Easter Island to Tahiti we have an emergency and the ocean results white-knuckle too big, there is another runway to which one can recourse: the Totegegie Airport at Gambier Islands (GMR), although it is so small and precarious that it does not even have a permanent refuel service. Something similar is on the other side, towards the Chilean coast: a very short, 2904-ft (885-m) runway (SCIR, a technical non-airline code) beginning and ending at cliffs, at the Juan Fernández archipelago, most specifically on the island known as Robinson Crusoe's...


Singapore Airlines, utilizing Airbus 340-500 aircraft, flies nonstop from Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) in Southeast Asia to Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR), New Jersey, opposite New York City, USA. The stretch starting from America to Asia is made through the shortest path, a "Great Circle" that mimics the orbit of satellites, but inside the atmosphere, of course. In this case the trajectory passes near the North Pole and the plane takes 18 h 25 min. But on the return trip now the prevailing winds are contrary, hindering the advance, so another route is chosen, farther south and consequently longer: about 8960 NM (16 600 km), although covered in just 15 additional minutes due to its careful positioning on one of the well-known jet streams, true "rivers of air" in the sky.

Theoretically, longer routes would already be possible: the new Boeing 777-200 LR ("Longer Range") could fly from Buenos Aires (EZE) to Shanghai, China (PVG) or right from the Madrid-Barajas Airport (MAD) to Wellington, New Zealand (WLG), cities that are almost antipodes, or diametrically opposite, in the globe. During a demonstration flight (with the plane almost empty) in 2005, the project's chief test pilot, Mrs. Suzanna Darcy-Hennemann, commanding a crew of 8 pilots, entered the Guinness Book of World Records by making this airliner travel a distance of 11 664 NM (21 601 km) nonstop, spending 22 h 42 min. The longest-duration nonstop commercial flight, however, belongs to another era: in 1957, TWA was covering the route Heathrow-San Francisco (SFO) with the piston, four-engine Lockheed L-1649A Starliner (a derivative of the beloved Constellation, but with much larger wings). With a strong wind blowing head-on, a flight lasted 23 h 19 min nonstop.


They charge 17 sterling pounds to board a 9-passenger Britten-Norman Islander of Scottish airline Loganair in exchange for 2 (two) minutes of flight between airports in the sister islands of Westray (WRY), whose longest runway, of gravel, has 1755 ft (535 m), and Papa Westray (PPW), longest runway: 1640 ft (500 m) of graded hardcore (crushed rock). In both "airport terminals", as it should be, there are firefighters on duty.


The Airport Juancho E. Yrausquin in the Saba Island (SAB), a Caribbean Sea island belonging to the The Netherlands, is authorized to receive only two models of airline aircraft: the de Havilland Canada Twin Otter and the Islander, both operated by WinAir. For the rest, a big "X" on each threshold reminds them that the tarmac has only 1000 ft (305 m) of usable runway.


The airport of the Isle of Barra (BRR) in Scotland, until a few years ago used to be a regular destination for passenger airliners in British Airways livery (and now in Flybe livery, operated by Loganair). However, timetables clarifies that flights to Barra depend on tide times: next to the handsome control tower, just the smooth sand surface of the sea beach extends for the airplanes to land and takeoff, where support vehicles also roam. The only airplane that can do this job is, once again, the remarkable twin-turboprop with fixed-landing-gear Twin Otter, for 19 passengers.


That is probably the Princess Juliana International Airport in Saint Martin (SXM), an island shared by The Netherlands and France. Important tourist destination in the Caribbean, its tighly bounded runway ends literally on the beach, making the huge aircraft land just meters from the many and fun beachgoers.

And now, where do you want to go?

Aldo Loup.

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Originally published in ABC Color, on 10 August 2008. Photograph: A de Havilland Canada Twin Otter in the colors of British Airways arriving at Barra, Scotland, in 1998. In the background is the control tower, the passenger terminal and luggage processing equipment. The sign in the foreground reads: "Keep off the beach when the windsock is flying and the airport is active." Photo credit: James Grey (original license, of the photo only, obtained at:, via Wikimedia Commons. Sign text reproduced with permission from Michael Galbraith, Barra Airport Station Manager.