In the middle of the northeast Caribbean Sea is an island called Saint Martin. Located around 300 kilometers east of Puerto Rico, the sea island measures 87 square kilometers and is divided into French and Dutch territories. This division dates all the way back to 1648. It is one of the smallest islands divided between two nations.
The northern part of the island is an overseas collectivity of France. The French calls it the Collectivite de Saint-Martin. The southern end, called Saint Maarten, is one of the four constituent countries that form the Netherlands. It is on the Dutch southern side that the Princess Juliana International Airport, the island’s main airport, is located.
The History Channel program called “Most Extreme Airports” ranks Princess Juliana International Airport as the fourth most dangerous airport in the world because of its approach over water and the mountains that are in the path of departing planes. It is also the featured airport in the free version of the game called “Microsoft Flight Simulator X.” It is also the destination of the same game’s mission called “Caribbean Landing.”
The airport handles more than 1.6 million passengers and more than 103,500 aircraft movements every year. It serves as the major gateway for other islands as well, including Anguilla, Saba, St. Barthelemy and St. Eustatius. It is also the hub of Windward Islands Airways.
The airport was built in the 1940s and started out as an airstrip for the military in 1942. By the following year, it had already been converted into a civilian airport. In 1944, the Dutch Crown Princess Juliana visited the island and landed at the airport. The place was eventually named after her.
In 1964, the airport was remodeled and outfitted with a new terminal building and control tower. A master plan to modernize the airport was then commissioned in 1997. It was divided into three phases, but only the first two have been completed so far.
The first phase upgraded the existing facilities and the level of service in different areas. The runway was widened and strengthened to increase its bearing capacity. The old terminal was also upgraded and a new apron was constructed. All these were completed in 2001.
The second phase involved the building of a radar facility and a new air traffic control tower, both of which were completed in 2004. A new and modern terminal measuring 27,000 square meters was also constructed and unveiled in 2006. This terminal is capable of handling up to 2.5 million passengers every year and has five jetways for large aircrafts.
Also, to comply with international safety rules, a Runway End Safety Area, or RESA, measuring 150 meters was built. This includes an overrun of 60 meters on both ends of the runway.
The third phase has yet to start, however, as it would depend if the airport traffic would develop as initially planned. If it pushes through, the last stage calls for the construction of a full parallel taxiway system. The terminal building will also be further extended and will be designed to accommodate more jetways and services.
Princess Juliana International Airport is a favorite among planespotters around the world because of its unique, albeit dangerous, approaches featuring low-altitude flyovers over the beach and the shore. Arriving pilots have complained of disorientation because of the approach over water. Planes follow a glide slope of three degrees while flying low over the island’s renowned Maho Beach. This problem, however, is easily solved through normal instrument checks, awareness of the situation and experience. The departure also presents some problems, as pilots need to turn almost immediately because of the mountains in the straight path. Still, there really have been no major incidents recorded in the airport.
The airport terminal is fully air-conditioned. There are 42 desks available for check-ins, eight desks for transit and eleven boarding gates. Departing passengers can make use of five booths specially earmarked for exit control. Arriving passengers, on the other hand, are spread over 10 immigration booths for fast processing of papers. The island’s airport promotes itself as having “So Much More,” and this is manifested in the 40 shops and food and beverage stalls available in the terminal. Some of these shops and food stalls are unique to the island of St. Maarten.
The airport operates from seven in the morning to nine in the evening. Air traffic controllers are equipped with a couple of radar systems, one with a range of 93 kilometers and the other with 460 kilometers. Air traffic controllers of Princess Juliana International Airport manage a total of 4,000 nautical miles of airspace, including the approach control for other airports in the area, like the L’ Esperance Airport in the French section of the island, Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport in Anguilla, Gustaf III Airport in St. Barths, F.D. Roosevelt Airport in St. Eustatius and the Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport in Saba.
For the rich and famous celebrities who wish to visit the island in their own private aircrafts, Princess Juliana International Airport has a Fixed Base Operator Building specially designed for the international and local traffic of private planes. The airport also has office space and private lounges. It even has dedicated customs personnel to serve those arriving via private aircrafts.
While the airport is located in the southern portion of the island controlled by the Dutch, the Netherlands has nevertheless signed a treaty with France regarding the border controls of the island. The two nations agreed on joint border controls on what they call as risk flights. The treaty was first agreed upon and signed way back in 1994, but it was not until 12 years later did both countries ratify the agreement. It came into full force the following year. Still, most of its provisions have yet to be implemented because the working group mandated by the treaty has not been established.