These are the real No Fly Zones you need to know about.
Let’s face it, unless you have the resources to fly in premium class, flying has become a miserable experience. Cash-strapped airlines are cutting back on service and new equipment, while cleverly meeting the upsizing of the population with a downsizing in seat size. Flights are cancelled at the whim of a bean counter’s calculator.
What used to be a wonderful escape from earthbound cares is now endless agony in an airborne sardine can. So why go to destinations with airports that just compound the trauma? Of course, sometimes you might have no choice. When travelling for work, for instance, or visiting far-flung family or even checking off a destination on your Bucket List.
But if it’s just a honeymoon, a week on the beach or any other optional travel, travellers will be torturing themselves needlessly by landing at some of world’s most horrific airports.
Airports can sin in three principal ways: One, the terminal itself can be dirty, decrepit, and stifling. Two, the ground staff can be rude, abusive, corrupt, incompetent, with no idea of the concepts of lining up or crowd control. Three, the location can be such that takeoffs and landings make you fear that you’ll never reach dry land alive. A very special few can offer a perfect storm of all these elements. Of course, if you’re one of those wingnuts who enjoy extreme travel, then the following seventeen airports might just be on your must-see list.
17. Jeddah King Abdulaziz International Airport, Saudi Arabia (JED)
JED is famous for two things. One: Being the largest airport in Saudi. And two: Aggressively rude immigration officers. One reviewer wrote they are unbelievable, ignoring lengthy lineups of hundreds of backed-up travellers to concentrate on chatting with each other.
It may sound like civil servants anywhere but this is the hub for devout Muslims on their Haj missions to the holy city of Mecca. Services and seats are in short supply. A new $7 billion facility was scheduled to open in mid-2015 but according to al-Arabiya the first phase is only “nearly ready.” So pilgrims here will be facing endless delays for the foreseeable future.
16. Paris Beauvais-Tillé International Airport, France (BVA)
Its website calls it The Smart Airport, but it has consistently been ranked among the worst airports in the world. It specializes in discount carriers who apparently don’t warn their customers who select ‘Paris’ as their destination that this airport is actually over 50 miles from Paris.
The online reviews are scathing. Although the airport is not technically Parisian, the employees’ arrogant disdain for tourists definitely is. Some reviews of this airport include; “Cramped, rundown, not particularly friendly… does little more than load and unload passengers in a cargo-like fashion.” And then there’s this deeply dissatisfied customer: “If you want to visit Paris you should avoid this airport! It’s my worst airport experience […] in western Europe all over the years! It’s not worth any cheap flight ticket as you have to pay for at least one-hour shuttle bus to Paris”
Interesting trivia: Beauvais airport was taken by the Germans in WW2 and used by the Luftwaffe as a forward bomber base for The Blitz on England. Customer relations don’t seem to have improved much in the intervening years.
15. Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba Island
See that little bit of tarmac near the foot of the cliff? That’s the shortest commercial runway in the world, 1300 feet in length. It also lies in the shadow of a massive slab of rock with steep cliffs and sheer drops into the sea at either end.
Saba is a speck just off the coast of Venezuela. The tourism website says “Landing on Saba is an art form”, an art form that involves flying straight at the cliff before making a sharp turn left onto (hopefully) the tarmac.
Saba tourism seems to think the frightening experience is a selling point. “First the deep blue of the Caribbean sea, then jagged cliffs and finally the end of the runway (that seems all too close!) will be imprinted on your mind”. If that’s the kind of terrifying near-death image you like imprinted in your brain, this is the place for you. If you make it, by the way, the airport facilities themselves do get rave reviews.
14. Frankfurt Hahn International Airport, Germany (HHN)
The Frankfurt reference is definitely an overstatement. This airport is over seventy miles and 2 hours from the actual city. It’s just as close to Luxembourg but they figured mentioning Frankfurt would draw more unsuspecting discount fliers.
Given that Frankfurt’s central airport is very well-liked and a mere 6 miles from the city center, flights to this no-man’s-land better guarantee a kick ass discount fare.
HHN is Germany’s 10th busiest airport, and is sort of the Walmart/McDonalds/generic hated bargain company of choice for air travel. Travellers get what they pay for, but they are not amused. One review cites: “What a scam! This airport has nothing to do with Frankfurt. A small airport in the middle of nowhere.” The prices are so good that many fliers don’t check on its location before hitting the “Book now” button.
Despite its isolated location, there isn’t even much in the way of food and amenities, so you better hope your flight isn’t delayed.
13. Barra Airport, Scotland
There’s not much happening in Barra, a remote town of 1200 people in the Outer Hebrides about 200 miles west of Glasgow. There’s a fish factory and it’s a center for the study of Gaelic. But it’s a lovely spot with a great beach that’s said to be popular for cockle picking. Oh, did they mention that it also doubles as a landing strip?
At least at low tide it does. At high tide you’ll just have to swim for it. And yes it’s the only one of its kind in the world, thank goodness. At high tide these runways are under the sea: flight times vary with the tide. One writer recommends. “For bonus chills and thrills, fly in at dusk, when just a few vehicles are used to illuminate the runway.”
Of course, every argument has two sides. National Geographic has named it one of the world’s most treacherous landing strips. It’s been named the world’s most stunning landing spot. But none of the pictures show what it’s like deplaning after high tide or rain, knee-deep in mud. It’s hard to imagine the council meeting where some local says “Why waste money on an airport? Let’s just land ‘em at the beach when we’re not cockle searching?” Genius.
12. Berlin Tegel International Airport, Germany (TXL)
The most common word used to describe Tegel is “horrible.” It drew maybe the funniest, pithiest comment of all time from this chagrined reviewer: “Even though the Second World War is over, Germany and France are still fighting over which airport can provide the worst experience for travellers. While Charles De Gaulle in Paris seems to win this war, Tegel is not going down without a fight.”
There is such a thing as being jaded. A lot of people would be much too excited at the prospect of being a passport stamp and a baggage carousel away from being in Paris or Berlin to get angry about the airport. Maybe it’s a sign of how smaller seats and dwindling in-flight service are stressing people out and making them very grouchy.
Well, at least this outdated and under-serviced airport is close to downtown and about to be replaced. History was made here too. It was at Tegel the Allied airlift landed to supply the city during the Russian blockade at the start of the Cold War.
11. Gibraltar International Airport (GIB)
For some, the main flaw of Gibraltar Airport is an amusing eccentricity. But for those who believe there are already quite enough things that could go wrong landing or taking off, a runway that has a busy four lane highway running straight across it is a cause for concern.
This airport is only a few square miles, so space – especially flat space – is at a premium. So every time a plane lands or takes off, barriers come up on Winston Churchill Avenue, like a train crossing. Wikipedia says; “The road across the runway is constraining operations at the airport”. That figures.
Still, there is no record of the highway causing a crash. It’s just bad aeronautic karma.
10. Bergamo Orio al Serio International Airport, Italy (BGY)
They tried to dress up the place by calling it Il Caravaggio, after the great Italian Renaissance master. But travellers still strongly feel this is no masterpiece. Reviews include: “The only way this airport could be improved would be to destroy it and rebuild.” Or this one: “AWFUL AIRPORT!!!!!!!! If you need to go or land to Milan, be prepared for delayed flights, xenophobic people and hostile welcome.”
Still, despite its smallness and hostility, it’s at least just 30 miles from Milan. But how could anyone in the 20th century build a travel hub with a shortage of electrical outlets and seats? Perhaps it’s an exercise in Italian minimalist design. What a dreary introduction to such a wonderful country.
9. New York City LaGuardia International Airport, USA (LGA)
There are a few special airports that manage to hit the Trifecta of ugliness, inefficiency and out and out danger. LaGuardia does that, and then some.
Vice President Joe Biden gave it this review: ‘If I blindfolded you and took you to LaGuardia Airport in New York, you think, “I must be in some third world country.'”
It’s worn out, drab and is the definition of grungy. It’s also on the list of scariest places to land. Pilots call it the USS LaGuardia because it has short runways ending in water so it’s like landing a commercial jet on an aircraft carrier. The airspace is congested, with JFK and Newark not far off, and some final approaches feel so low they could knock over flower pots on roofs.
8. Paro International Airport, Bhutan (PBH)
Bhutan is rated as one of the world’s happiest countries. That’s probably because the natives don’t have to land at this airport in a deep valley surrounded by 18,000 foot peaks. And then there are the houses scattered along the final approach path, which planes clear by just a few feet.
Even Boeing has said that Paro airport is ‘one of the world’s most difficult for takeoffs and landings’. Very few pilots are licensed to handle it. According to DrukAir, the main carrier, “each flight is a mesmerizing aeronautical feat and offers an exciting descent into the kingdom.” Are they secretly trying to discourage tourism?
It’s the only airport whose runway is shorter than its elevation. It’s a long way down if you miss. Paro is known for its impeccably preserved old Buddhist temples, which is good – because you’ll want to give thanks to the nearest deity available for landing safely.
7. Manila Ninoy Aquino International Airport, Philippines (MNL)
NAIA is coming off a three-year run as the undisputed heavyweight champ of airport badness as they finally started a long-overdue refurbishing. But then, this is a place where the air conditioning has been known to go down for months without being fixed, turning into an airless sweat lodge in the stifling heat.
How about this Google review? “Probably one of the worst airports I had been to. Almost 2 hours at the immigration going in, and 1&1/2hrs going out. With no AC working and no access to any liquids and over a 1000 people trying to get through immigration, it is a health & safety hazard.” And this is an improvement.
If you must crash at this airport, best do it on the inbound flight and save yourself the agony of its Terminal illness.
6. Kathmandu Tribhuvan International Airport, Nepal (KTM)
The Lonely Planet travel guide calls Nepal “Travel Heaven”. That you have to go through Airport Hell to get there may make devout travellers doubt their own faith.
The two most common words in traveller reviews of KTM are “filthy” and “disgusting”. One traveller warns “Just make very sure that you never, NEVER need to use the washrooms in this airport.” Descriptions of this airport include “bus station in an impoverished neighbourhood” and “old disused factory”.
Many recall being terrified of being assaulted by hordes of porters and taxi drivers. Sure, Nepal is not as wealthy as its neighbours, and you’re probably not going to cancel a trip to Travel Heaven because of vile washrooms. Just be prepared for the worst.
5. Benazir Bhutto Airport, Islamabad, Pakistan (ISB)
One traveller’s review pretty much sums it up: “This airport is like a central prison.” And it hosts over three million inmates a year.
Taxi drivers may drive you where you want to go or they may just rip you off. Pakistan is in the top 50 of corrupt countries in the world, so why should one of their larger airports be any different? Notably absent: Crowd control, cleanliness, technology and consistent security checks.
Authorities are at least aware that this airport has been torturing travellers for over a decade and say a new one should open in mid-2016. You’ll probably still have lots of time to savor the experience before this actually becomes a reality.
4. Toncontín International Airport, Honduras
Well, it’s convenient. Just three miles from the center of the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, the History Channel’s program Most Extreme Airports ranked this the second most dangerous in the world. At an altitude of 3500 feet, in a valley surrounded by steep mountains, the zigzag approach to the airport is considered to be one of the most difficult in the world and a travel nightmare.
Even with a recent extension its runway remains one of the shortest in the world. One blog has a picture with a jet on final approach with the caption “Start praying.” 166 people have died in crashes there since 1962. You must really want to be a flight attendant to accept working here.
3. Tashkent International Airport, Uzbekistan (TAS)
Tashkent is one of the greatest of the cities on the legendary Spice Route. But now it’s the Wild, Wild East. Their International Airport reflects the finding that rated Uzbekistan as the fifth most corrupt country in the world.
Reviews online keep topping each other’s nightmares. Just a sample: “Beware of airport scams everyone!” “ Miserable airport. Slow immigration, chaotic queuing, officers leaving their booth to go and smoke without any warning, disorganised luggage delivery”. “Worst Airport ever.”
Travellers here have been known to pay for nonexistent class upgrades. Odd middle-of-the-night flight times are common as airlines skimp on landing fees. There are tales of pilots on the tarmac sucking on vodka bottles. Other complaints include long delays in searing heat without aircon and officials on the take.
2. Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, Nepal
Lukla, or as the Daily Mail called it “The terror at the top of the world”, is the jumping off point for climbers heading to Everest. It’s now named after the two men who first who conquered Everest’s mighty peak in 1953. This airport has been Number One on Most Dangerous lists before. Gear Junkie insists it’s as safe as any airport but a quick Google shows there have been seven “incidents”, as they’re discreetly called, in just the last ten years.
Just the numbers are chilling. Its tiny 1500 foot landing strip is at an altitude of 9000 feet, with a towering peak at one end and a two mile or so drop at the other. Pilots have no leeway and no navigation aids. The terrain doesn’t allow for “go-arounds.”
But then, if you’re going to climb the world’s tallest mountain, a white knuckle landing is probably no biggie.
1. Princess Juliana Airport, St. Martin
The ne plus ultra of Aviation Insanity, this short runway built very close to shore means all planes, from Twin Otters to 747s, fly just a few feet over the heads of people on Maho beach. Magic Johnson would have tire marks on top of his head.
This poses little danger to the people on the plane. But how would you enjoy your vacation if it were your plane that decapitated a beach full of tourists? Still, the beach-goers love it. The word most often used in reviews is “Awesome”, but many who have yet to experience are skeptical about the pleasure of this brush with gruesome violent death.
Imagine the conversation with the travel agent. “I’d like an expensive distant beach with planes that fly over so low I can fist bump the pilot. It must have ear puncturing noise and jet fuel exhaust in my face, say, oh , every half hour.”
One person rapturously wrote “The beach goers can almost touch the landing gear as planes make their landing. It’s unbelievable, an aircraft lover’s dream. Nowhere else in the world can you get so close to the variety of aircraft.” It just doesn’t get any better. All you silly people who’ve been wasting time and money visiting those crumbling old European churches and Asian temples must be feeling pretty foolish right now…