Pilots Reveal the World's Most Frightening Airports

By Jake Schroeder
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Photo Courtesy: Flo Weiss/Wikimedia Commons

Piloting a plane takes both skill and nerves of steel, but there are some airports that give even the most experienced aviators the heebie-jeebies. Short runways, poor design, terrible weather and geographical obstacles can all make for a bumpy ride.

We've found quite a few airports that will make you rethink your travel plans, so grab your boarding pass and buckle up as we take a look at some of the world's scariest airports.

Tenzing-Hillary Airport, Lukla, Nepal

Even for experienced pilots, Tenzing-Hillary Airport in Nepal is one of the world’s most dangerous airports to fly into. Also called Lukla Airport after a nearby village, this is a popular hub for adventurers planning to visit or even ascend Mount Everest.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikipedia

The area around this single-runway airport is known for its high winds and rain. Pilots must carefully maneuver through steep terrain and then deal with a tricky runway. The airport is so challenging that the Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal has mandated that aviators have specialized training.

Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, Washington, D.C.

If you are traveling to the nation’s capital, you might find yourself flying into Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport. Located next to the Potomac River, the airport forces pilots to perform several complicated maneuvers due to noise restrictions and two no-fly zones meant to protect government buildings.

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Photo Courtesy: US Geological Survey

Pilots flying into Reagan National must use the river to navigate, called a "river visual," and departing planes must make a quick ascent and bank left to avoid the White House. The airport’s longest runway is 6,869 feet, compared to neighboring Dulles Airport’s 10,000-foot runway.

LaGuardia Airport, New York, New York

Pilots aren’t especially fond of flying into New York City’s LaGuardia Airport. Accommodating nearly 30 million passengers annually, pilots must deal with narrow taxiways and only two short 7,000-foot runways — which just so happen to be surrounded by water.

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Photo Courtesy: Patrick Handrigan/Wikipedia

Due to LaGuardia airport’s high volume of travelers, flights must take off every few minutes to avoid costly delays. Low cloud cover and wind shear also make it one of America’s busiest airports a challenge for pilots and their passengers. LaGuardia Airport’s many problems have resulted in multiple accidents over the years.

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Madeira Airport, Madeira, Portugal

Portugal's Madeira Airport is a white-knuckle ride for many passengers. Ranked as the ninth most dangerous airport in the world, this airport is surrounded by mountains and water, making takeoffs and landings difficult even for the most experienced pilots.

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Photo Courtesy: Antonio57/Wikipedia

Opened in 1972, Madeira Airport initially had a short runway that only measured 5,906 feet. The runway was eventually extended by building a platform that partly juts out over the ocean. The airport’s creative solution for lengthening its runway received the 2004 International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering’s award for Outstanding Structure.

Paro Airport, Paro, Bhutan

Bhutan may be known as one of the happiest places on earth, but Paro International Airport one of the most challenging in the world, probably isn’t helping. Only a handful of skilled pilots are permitted to fly into Paro. Located in a deep valley next to the Paro Chhu River, pilots must carefully dodge tall mountains and high winds during take-off and descent.

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Photo Courtesy: Md. Aminul Hassan/Wikipedia

The airport’s small single runway is just 6,499 feet in length, yet Paro handles up to 50 flights per day. Thirty thousand passengers fly in and out of this airport annually; however, flights are prohibited before sunrise and after sunset.

Ice Runway, Antarctica

The Ice Runway is one of Antarctica’s major runways and unique in that it’s constructed solely from ice. Located near U.S. Antarctic Program’s McMurdo Station, the runway regularly accommodates heavy cargo planes until the ice begins to break up in December.

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Photo Courtesy: P Bond/Wikipedia

While pilots have reported that landing on the ice feels the same as landing on a standard runway, planes typically come to a stop when their weight causes them to sink into the ice. After landing, planes are moved to a safer location to prevent them from breaking the ice and sinking.

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Los Angeles International Airport, Los Angeles, California

Los Angeles International Airport may be the world’s fourth busiest aviation center, but its high volume of passengers also makes it one of the most deadly. According to a survey of pilots, LAX’s heavy air traffic, along with its mix of commercial and personal aircraft, make it one of the least desirable destinations.

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Photo Courtesy: InSapphoWeTrust/Wikipedia

While descending into the Los Angeles basin can be difficult, professional pilots believe the biggest risk involves mid-air collisions. Both the Los Angeles Department of Airports and Federal Aviation Administration refute the claims, saying that LAX is as safe as any other U.S. airport.

Toncontin Airport, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Toncontin Airport in Tegucigalpa, Honduras is considered one of the world’s most dangerous places to fly through. The airport is situated in a valley, requiring pilots to make a sharp turn immediately before landing. Aviation experts have equated landing at Toncontin to landing on an aircraft carrier.

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Photo Courtesy: Enrique Galeano Morales/Wikipedia

On May 30, 2008, TACA Flight 390 crashed while trying to land at Toncontin when it overran the runway and rolled onto a nearby street and crashed into several cars and an embankment. Five people lost their lives, including three passengers and two people on the ground.

San Diego International Airport, San Diego, California

San Diego may have a laid-back vibe, but the thought of landing or taking off from San Diego International Airport makes some pilots tense up. Even the most skilled aviators must contend with mountains to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, strong tailwinds and Mexican airspace to the south.

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Photo Courtesy: GrapefruitSculpin/Wikipedia

Restricted by so many natural barriers, pilots are forced to make a steep landing on a short runway. One pilot told the Los Angeles Times that landing at San Diego’s airport was like "landing in the bottom of a shoebox."

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Princess Juliana International Airport, St. Barts

Vacationers heading to the Caribbean island of St. Bart's are likely fly to Princess Juliana International Airport. The facility has developed a reputation as being one of the most dangerous in the region. The airport has a single runway that measures just 7,546 feet.

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Photo Courtesy: Lawrence Lansing/Wikimedia Commons

The airport’s short runway results in aircraft flying only 60 feet over Maho Beach, a popular tourist destination. While the low altitude of the planes is a potential danger to beachgoers, watching the planes fly over has become a popular tourist attraction. In 2017, a tourist was killed by a jet blast from a departing flight.

Barra International Airport, Eoligarry, Scotland

Barra Island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides may seem like an enticing place to relax on the beach, but don’t even think about lying out in the sand. This is the only place in the world where flights take off directly from a beach.

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Photo Courtesy: James Gray/Wikipedia

Opened in 1936, Barra airport is home to three runways, with the main landing strip located at Traigh Mhòr Bay. In addition to having to monitor wind conditions, Barra Airport’s staff must also check sea conditions since the airport’s runways are totally submerged during high tide.

Matekane Air Strip, Matekane, Lesotho

Travelers may want to re-think using Matekane Air Strip in the African nation of Lesotho. Set on a plateau, the runway abruptly ends at the edge of a cliff with a 2,000-foot drop. Most visitors using the tiny African nation’s scary runway are physicians or charity groups needing access to the small African nation’s more remote areas.

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Photo Courtesy: Tom Claytor/Wikipedia

Those who use the runway often feel their hearts skip a beat, as most planes aren’t airborne before they reach the end of the runway, causing them to briefly dip down into the valley before gaining altitude.

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Skiathos Airport, Skiathos, Greece

A visit to the Greek island of Skiathos isn’t for the faint of heart. The short and narrow airstrip is just 5,341 long, with one end facing the sea and the other a roadway. The largest plane allowed is the Boeing 757, which has a long, narrow body.

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Photo Courtesy: Paul Lakin/Wikimedia Commons

The airport was built on land between Skiathos and the island of Lazareta, which was reclaimed from the sea. The airport is popular with planespotters who enjoy watching the airport’s low-altitude flights from just behind the runway. The airport accommodates over 400,000 passengers annually.

Gibraltar International Airport, British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar

Located in the British Territory of Gibraltar along Spain’s southern coast, Gibraltar International Airport requires perfect landings from pilots who fly there. Gibraltar’s lack of flat land makes the tiny area by the Bay of Gibraltar the only suitable spot for an airport.

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Photo Courtesy: Cabeza2000/Wikimedia Commons

Gibraltar International Airport is also known for its treacherous crosswinds, which sometimes result in flights being diverted to Spain, Portugal or Morocco. The airport is quite peculiar since a road intersects the airport’s runway, requiring drivers to stop and wait patiently between take-offs and landings.

Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, Saba

The Dutch Caribbean island of Saba is home to Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, famous for having the world’s shortest commercial runway. While most runways have an average length of 6,000-10,000 feet, the runway at Saba is just a paltry 1,312 feet.

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Photo Courtesy: Fyodor Borisov/Wikipedia

The tiny runway can handle smaller propeller aircraft, but jets are out of the question. While the airport does have a tower that offers advisory service, pilots need to use their best judgment when flying in and out of Saba, since there’s no air traffic control available.

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Dallas-Ft. Worth International Airport, Dallas/Ft. Worth, Texas

In 2018, local media warned about flying out of Dallas-Ft. Worth after at least 14 incursions by unauthorized people, cars and aircraft that strayed onto the runways. That same year, the airport announced that the FAA was commiting up to $180 million in grant money to increase the airport's runway safety.

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Photo Courtesy: Tom Walsh/Wikipedia

Years earlier, the Department of Transportation accused the Federal Aviation Administration of covering up safety errors made by the airport's air traffic controllers back in 2009. The mistakes were then blamed on pilots.

Courchevel Airport, Saint-Bon-Tarentaise, France

Pilots shudder when France’s perilous Courchevel Airport is mentioned. With a runway that measures just 1,722 feet, take-offs and landings need to go off without a hitch. Located in the French Alps within a deep valley, Courchevel’s approach is so complicated that only specially-certified pilots are authorized to fly into or out of the airport.

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Photo Courtesy: Martin Putz/Wikimedia Commons

With its upward-sloping runway and adjacent ski slopes, Courchevel is only served by smaller fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Another caveat is that pilots can only utilize the airport on clear, sunny days since Courchevel has no runway lighting.

Boston Logan International Airport

Years ago, Boston Logan International Airport was cited as one of the worst airports in the United States. While its reputation for safety has improved, pilots still get headaches over what goes on outside of the airport.

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Photo Courtesy: Fletcher/Wikimedia Commons

According to WCVB, in 2019, there was a 130 percent increase in drone "incursions" around Logan Airport compared to 2015. That same year, two flights reported someone flashing a green laser light as the planes approached the airport. While both aircraft landed without incident, the FAA noted that aiming a laser at a plane violates federal law.

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Antonio Narino Airport, Chachagüí, Colombia

Located in a mountainous region, Colombia's Antonio Narino Airport had little choice but to on a plateau. Its perilous location and short runway have inspired comparisons to landing on an aircraft carrier, much like Tocontin Airport.

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Photo Courtesy: Talivan/Wikimedia Commons

Moreover, pilots must also contend with dangerous crosswinds and poor weather conditions that can potentially shut down the airport. And while it’s true some improvements have been made to increase this aviation center's safety, an increase in passenger volume and cargo has officials scouting for a more suitable location.

Juneau International Airport, Juneau, Alaska

Mountainous terrain, low cloud cover and rainy weather and harsh winds put Juneau International Airport on the map as a challenging flight destination. Dangerous winds also make flying in and out of this airport a hair-raising experience. Unfortunately, Juneau is the only state capital in the United States that's inaccessible by road.

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Photo Courtesy: Gillfoto/Wikimedia Commons

Winds at Juneau International Airport are so hazardous that flights must be halted when they kick up. To help pilots determine when it's safe to fly, the airport implemented the Juneau Airport Wind System (JAWS) in 2012 to monitoring windshear and reduce extreme turbulence.

Narsarsuaq Airport, Narsarsuaq, Greenland

It's not often that pilots need to contend with fjords, but that's precisely what they face at Greenland's Narsarsuaq Airport. This airport is known for its short runway and menacing winds that cause turbulence.

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Photo Courtesy: Jim Stewart/Wikimedia Commons

To make things even more interesting, an active volcano located nearby regularly erupts, throwing ash into the air that causes problems with visibility and damages the plane's engines. Originally built in 1941 by the U.S. military, this now-commercial airport serves approximately 25,000 passengers each year.

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Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, Colorado

Colorado’s Aspen/Pitkin airport is undoubtedly convenient for skiers hoping to hit the slopes, but be prepared for a white-knuckle flight. Considered one of the most dangerous in the United States, this airport’s so tricky that pilots must hold a special certificate if they plan on flying to this snowy destination.

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Photo Courtesy: Avitya/Wikimedia Commons

Winter is the area’s peak vacation season, but it’s also the most dangerous time to fly into the resort community. Aspen/Pitkin’s airstrip is lodged between two mountains, sometimes leaving pilots with low visibility and an icy runway.

Bert Mooney Airport, Montana

Named after the first aviator to fly mail into Yellowstone National Park back in 1935, Butte, Montana’s Bert Mooney Airport, can be a bit dicey even for modern-day pilots. The airport’s lack of a control tower combined with the surrounding steep terrain make flights in and out a challenge.

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Photo Courtesy: 50f7/Wikimedia Commons

The small airport has seen two major accidents, including a commercial Northwest Orient flight in 1950 and a private plane taking a family on a ski vacation in 2009 that crashed into a cemetery just 500 feet away from the airport.

Congonhas Airport, São Paulo, Brazil

Congonhas Airport is right in the heart of bustling São Paulo, one of Brazil’s largest and most congested cities. The flights in and out of this airport come so close to the city that it seems as though aircraft could potentially clip nearby high-rise buildings.

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Photo Courtesy: Zé Carlos Barretta/Wikimedia Commons

That’s not all: water accumulation on the runways makes Congonhas infamous for its slippery take-offs and landings, which have resulted in several fatal accidents. Problems have continued even after the airport’s main runway was repaved for improved water drainage back in 2007.

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Svalbard Airport, Svalbard, Norway

Norway’s Svalbard Airport is the world’s northernmost commercial airport. Due to the lack of taxiways and runways that need frequent re-asphalting due to improper construction, pilots aren’t exactly thrilled about flying to this destination.

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Photo Courtesy: Alexey Reznichenko/Алексей Резниченко/Wikimedia Commons

Svalbard Airport is also known for the permafrost under its runways that prevents the soil from defrosting in the summer. Flights aren’t a problem when Svalbard experiences 24 hours of daylight in the summer, but dark winters and a lack of runway lights mean limited flights during the archipelago’s dark winters.

John Wayne Airport, Orange County, California

Orange County, California’s John Wayne Airport may have a celebrity’s name, but what it’s really famous for is its 5,701 foot-long runway, one of the shortest found at any major airport in the United States. There's no need to visit neighboring Disneyland to experience a thrilling ride.

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Photo Courtesy: Orange County Archives/Wikipedia

The airport’s short runway in combination with noise restrictions imposed on the airport by neighboring residential communities results in flights out of John Wayne Airport being forced to make a sharp, steep ascent that both passengers and pilots have likened to a rocket launch.

JFK Airport, New York City

One of the area’s three primary airports, JFK presents a series of challenges to pilots. Noise restrictions implemented in 1964 make certain approaches and take-offs a bit dicey, and with LaGuardia and Newark airports nearby, the air traffic over New York City is typically pretty heavy.

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Photo Courtesy: Spartan7W/Wikipedia

Pilots also know JFK requires the "Canarsie Approach," a complicated maneuver where aviators need to come in from the southwest at a 90-degree angle. The Canarsie Approach is named after a section of Brooklyn that planes fly over as pilots come in for a landing.

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Chicago Midway Airport, Chicago, Illinois

Pilots are wary of Chicago’s Midway Airport. Because it’s short on space, there’s no room for error at this airport. The surrounding business and residential areas combined with short runways and cold, snowy weather make this airport an aviator’s nightmare.

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Photo Courtesy: David Kinney Oak Park/Wikimedia Commons

A 2005 accident in which a Boeing 737 skidded off the runway resulted in the airport installing lightweight glass rocks at the end of the airport that can bring a landing jet traveling up to 80 mph to a jarring halt. The system was introduced in 2015 at a cost of $15 million.

Kansai International Airport, Osaka, Japan

Kansai International Airport is considered one of the most dangerous in the world. Due to a shortage of land, this airport was built on a man-made island. Being totally surrounded by water requires pilots to perform perfectly — take-offs and landings are so complicated that only specially-certified pilots are permitted to fly here.

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Photo Courtesy: Tdk/Wikipedia

Pilots must also contend with the region's earthquakes and cyclones, while rising sea levels may eventually submerge this watery landing strip. With all of the risks, more than 26 million passengers flew in and out of this airport in 2016.

Chuck Yeager Airport, Charleston, West Virginia

Named after flying ace Chuck Yeager, you may feel like a test pilot if you flying into or out of Charleston, West Virginia. Chuck Yeager Airport sits on a flattened hill with 300-foot drops all the way around, resulting in a perilous plunge for any aircraft that overshoot the runway.

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Photo Courtesy: formulanone/Wikimedia Commons

In 2018, Frommers.com ranked Yeager as one of the 10 Worst Airports in the United States, adding that the airport is also prone to mudslides. While Yeager Airport sounds frightening, airport officials assert it's perfectly safe and complies with all FAA regulations.

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