The CIA estimates there are more than 41,000 airports worldwide. In 2019 alone, 4.5 billion commercial airline passengers took to the skies, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson was the world’s busiest airport in 2021, with 75 million travelers, and Qatar's Hamad International in Doha was voted the world's best for 2021, but they only scratch the surface of noteworthy airports around the globe. From runways on ice or sand to unexpected passenger amenities and hair-raising approaches, take a look at 15 of the most interesting and extreme airports in the world.
St. Helena Airport (St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha)
One of the most remote islands in the world, St. Helena lies in the middle of the South Atlantic, 1,200 miles west of Angola and 2,500 miles east of Brazil. Best known as the site of Napoleon's final exile, the tiny island — less than 50 square miles — was previously reachable only via a five- to six-day boat trip from South Africa, weather permitting. That changed when St. Helena Airport finally opened in 2016, though it was dubbed "the world's most useless airport" after many delays in construction. And due to weather conditions that made landing on the runway difficult, it wasn’t until a full year later that regular commercial services began. Weekly flights now connect St. Helena's 4,000 residents to South Africa, as well as serve the island's burgeoning tourism industry, but pilots have to be specially trained to land here. The airport itself isn't particularly noteworthy, but the remote location of the island and the notoriously challenging runway make it a unique destination.
Singapore Changi Airport (Singapore)
Routinely named the "world's best" in airport rankings, Singapore's futuristic Changi Airport looks like something out of the movie Avatar. And for good reason: Architect Moshe Safdie, who designed Jewel Changi Airport, the entertainment and retail complex within the facilities, was inspired by the otherworldly landscapes of the 2009 film when he was designing the nature-themed space. Airplanes aren't the only things that fly at Changi — the airport has a butterfly garden with more than 1,000 of the ethereal winged creatures, as well as botanical gardens, myriad sculptures, a suspended trampoline, a hedge maze, and the world's largest indoor waterfall.
Barra Airport (Eoligarry, Scotland)
Flying off to a beach destination has never been more literal than at this airport in Scotland's windswept Outer Hebrides islands. On Barra island, the hard-packed sands on the bay of Traigh Mhòr are the runway — the only one of its kind in the world. Since there's no asphalt, planes use the beach for takeoffs and landings, keeping a close eye on the tides and ever-changing weather conditions. The airport offers regularly scheduled flights to Glasgow.
Munich International Airport (Munich, Germany)
Skateboarding and surfing are two activities travelers usually don’t expect to find in an airport, but when the airport is Munich International, it’s best to toss aside your preconceived notions. In addition to a skate park and a 33-foot indoor wave pool, the airport has Airbräu, its own Bavarian brewery — and the world's first airport brewery. During the holiday season, the airport also transforms into a Christmas market, complete with an indoor ice-skating rink and more than 450 beautifully decorated trees.
Princess Juliana International Airport (St. Maarten)
Airplane enthusiasts from all over the world flock to the Dutch side of the Caribbean island of St. Maarten for the unique view of planes from Maho Beach as they arrive at Princess Juliana Airport. The airport's runway is just over 7,500 feet in length, forcing pilots to come in low across Simpson Bay, and use nearly the entire length of the runway. Plane spotters set up in the sand with chairs, binoculars, and (hopefully) ear protection to get unbelievably close views of jets as they make their thrilling low-altitude approaches.
Gibraltar International Airport (Gibraltar)
The rocky outcrop of Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory, straddles the eponymous strait that separates Europe and North Africa. In a similar fashion, the sole runway at this unique airport is separated by Winston Churchill Avenue. The highway is the only roadway that connects the island to Spain's mainland, and it must be closed every time a plane arrives or departs. Along with the busy road bisecting the runway, the airport is exposed to strong cross winds around the Rock of Gibraltar and across the Bay of Gibraltar, making it one of the most fascinating airports in the world.
Tenzing-Hillary Airport (Lukla, Nepal)
Aerodynamics make this domestic airport in Nepal's high Himalayas one of the most dangerous in the world. Air density lessens at higher altitudes, forcing pilots to land at higher speeds. Named after Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, the first climbers confirmed to have summited Mount Everest, the airport has just one short (1,729-foot) runway, which is made riskier by treacherous winds and the surrounding mountains. In spite of the perilous approach, the "gateway to Everest" is visited every year by thousands of tourists and climbers.
Ice Runway (McMurdo Station, Antarctica)
Antarctica's McMurdo Station requires a considerable amount of cargo to support the scientists and crew conducting research at the bottom of the world. Asphalt is impossible to install, but ice is in plentiful supply. As a result, large aircraft such as the Lockheed C-130 Hercules land on a runway of groomed snow that is packed atop a layer of sea ice over deep and dangerous waters. The runway is reconstructed annually each summer and remains in operation until December, when the ice becomes unstable. Besides the main Ice Runway, there are two other nearby runways made of compacted snow and ice that serve McMurdo Station, Phoenix Runway and Williams Field.
Kansai International Airport (Osaka, Japan)
Occupying an artificial island in Osaka Bay, the floating airport of Kansai is an engineering marvel. Serving the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, and Kobe, Kansai was the first airport constructed on an entirely human-made landmass. The 2.5-mile ocean airport was built beginning in 1987 and was the largest civil engineering project in the world at the time. It's connected to the mainland by a six-mile bridge, which itself cost around $1 billion USD. (The entire project was more than $20 billion.) One of the busiest airports in Japan today, Kansai was built to withstand typhoons, waves, and earthquakes; however, it is now imperiled by rising sea levels.
Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport (Saba)
One of the smallest commercial airports in the world, Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport has a runway that barely measures 1,300 feet, earning it the Guinness World Record for shortest commercial runway on the planet. It measures slightly longer than the runway of a typical aircraft carrier, creating a real challenge for pilots landing their aircraft on the tiny mountainous island. With cliffs on one end of the airstrip and the Caribbean waters of Cove Bay on the other, Saba's airport offers a true test of nerves on the 15-minute flights to and from the nearby island of St. Maarten.
Black Rock City Airport (Gerlach, Nevada)
The bare-bones facilities are certainly nothing to write home about, but what can you expect for an airport that operates only 13 days out of the year? Black Rock City Municipal Airport is an FAA-approved landing strip built to serve the annual Burning Man festival. Held in northern Nevada at the end of every summer, the festival draws attendees from around the world, some of whom arrive by small plane. "Burners" create a 6,000-foot runway on a dry alkali lake bed and — like they do with everything else at the festival — erase all traces until the following year.
Paro International Airport (Paro, Bhutan)
The only international airport serving the mystical Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan, Paro International Airport is so challenging that fewer than two dozen pilots in the world are certified to fly there. The airport doesn’t have radar, so pilots must manually navigate (during daylight only) between 18,000-foot peaks into a narrow river valley. If that weren't complex enough, the 7,431-foot runway is relatively short and only visible at the last moment — as pilots avoid rooftops and power lines while dropping in at a sharp 45-degree angle.
Svalbard Airport (Longyearbyen, Norway)
The northernmost airport in the world with regularly scheduled flights, Longyearbyen's Svalbard Airport was constructed by the Luftwaffe during World War II. Originally, only daylight flights were possible — a problem in a land where the sun doesn't rise for months in the winter. In 1965, paraffin lamps were installed to illuminate the runway. Now modernized, the airport services the remote Norwegian archipelago, located only 500 miles from the North Pole, with flights from Tromsø and Oslo.
Daocheng Yading Airport (Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, China)
Almost 15,000 feet above sea level, on the Tibetan Plateau in the mountains of southwestern Sichuan province, China has built the world's highest civilian airport. Constructed at a cost of $258 million USD, Daocheng Yading Airport features a futuristic spaceship-shaped terminal and is designed to handle 280,000 passengers a year. Opened in 2013, the airport replaced the two-day bus trip to the provincial capital of Chengdu with a one-hour flight and has increased tourism to the Yading Nature Reserve, one of the country's most pristine natural areas.
King Fahd International Airport (Dammam, Saudi Arabia)
Almost as big as the entire neighboring country of Bahrain, King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia is the world's largest airport by area, according to Guinness World Records. Covering nearly 300 square miles, the airport was formerly a U.S. airbase and now contains a mosque that can accommodate 2,000 worshippers, on-site greenhouses, and a lavishly appointed private terminal for exclusive use by the Saudi royal family. Surprisingly, in spite of its vast size, the airport has only two runways and is the third-busiest in Saudi Arabia.