Unique Airports From The World’s 7 Continents

Today, we take a look at some of the most unique airports from the world’s seven continents, from those built in extreme climatic conditions to an airport featuring rather unusual objects embedded in its runway. Read on to delve into the weird and wonderful world of airports, some of which are an experience in themselves.

Svalbard Airport, Norway
Svalbard Airport is located on the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard © Alexey Reznichenko

A Selection of Diverse and Unique Airports/Airfields

Skukuza Airport (SZK), South Africa

Established in 1958, Skukuza Airport is in the unique position of being the only commercial airport in the iconic Kruger National Park, South Africa.

Described by Forbes in 2018 as “the prettiest airport in the world”, the airport is noted for resembling a hotel lobby with an almost spa-like aesthetic. The design of the airport was inspired by and purposely designed to incorporate elements of the surrounding environment. Uniquely, the airport has no loudspeakers; flight announcements are made on a purely oral basis before passengers are personally escorted to their flights. Baggage handling is also carried out purely physically to divide arriving and departing passengers’ luggage.

The airport currently serves as a hub for Johannesburg-based airline Airlink, which is the only airline to offer flights to and from the airport. The airport provides daily flights to and from Cape Town and O. R. Tambo International Airport (JNB) in Johannesburg.

The airport can process up to 400 passengers a day. Daily flight slots at the airport, however, are limited to a set number due to the airport’s location in an area of ecological importance/sensitivity. The airport also operates specially formulated flight paths to reduce noise pollution for this exact reason.

Skukuza Airport (SZK), South Africa
Skukuza Airport takes inspiration from the surrounding flora and fauna © Michelle Egly

Troll Airfield, Antarctica

With a rather interesting name, Troll Airfield is close to the Norwegian Troll research station located on Princess Martha Coast in Queen Maud Land, a region of Antarctica.

Troll research station was established in 1990, with Troll Airfield opening in 2005. The airfield is owned and operated by the Norwegian Polar Institute, which conducts scientific research in the region.

In contrast to most of the world’s runways, which are typically made of concrete or asphalt, the main runway at Troll Airfield was built on glacial blue ice on the Antarctic ice sheet. The airfield is very basic and is not aided by an instrument landing system (ILS) but rather by visual flight rules (VFR). The airfield does not facilitate commercial or private flights; however, airlines such as Icelandair, Smartwings and Hi Fly have operated or currently operate flights to locations such as Cape Town International Airport (CPT) and Oslo Airport (OSL) to transport Norwegian Polar Institute staff members to their base.

In January 2022, budget Czech airline Smartwings landed the world’s first Boeing 737 MAX on a glacier at the airfield, at an altitude of 1232 meters. The flight carried Norwegian Polar Institute members from Oslo, Norway, to their base at Troll research station, and the achievement marked the airline’s feat of landing on every continent on Earth.

Although numerous airfields are located on the continent to facilitate the transport of staff working at scientific research bases, Troll Airfield included, efforts made by some countries to build large airports in the region have thus far been unsuccessful. In 2021, the Australian government shelved plans to build an airport and runway in Antarctica. The government hoped that the scheme would provide year-round access to Davis research station, Australia’s most southerly base in the region. The predicted environmental and economic costs of building such an airport and runway ultimately put paid to the plans.

Troll Station, Antartica
Troll Airfield provides access to one of the world’s most remote regions © Islarsh (top right) and Klima- og miljødepartementet (left and bottom right)

King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED), Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED) is one of the country’s largest and busiest airports, with passenger numbers exceeding 15 million annually. The airport, located in Jeddah, is in close proximity to Islam’s holiest city, Mecca, and as such, the Hajj and Umrah Terminal Complex was constructed to facilitate Muslim pilgrims transiting to the holy city during Hajj and Umrah pilgrimages.

Designed by Bangladeshi–American engineer Fazlur Rahman Khan and engineered by German structural engineer Horst Berger, construction of the terminal began in 1974, with it reaching completion in 1981. In 1983, the terminal won the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and was noted for its “incomparable elegance and beauty”.

The terminal has a Bedouin-tent-like design and consists of ten modules of twenty-one tents with Teflon-coated fibreglass roof units supported by steel pylons.

The terminal has been described as an airport in itself and was designed to function as a village. It contains a mosque, a souk (marketplace), banks, a post office and other facilities. In addition, apart from customs, baggage handling and other facilities which are housed inside an air-conditioned building, the terminal benefits from having an open-plan design that allows for natural ventilation and shading from the intense sun.

King Abdulaziz International Airport (JED), Saudi Arabia
The Hajj and Umrah Terminal Complex was built to assist Muslim pilgrims transiting to Mecca © UR-SDV (top), Shah134pk (bottom left) and BBC World Service (bottom right)

Australia and Oceania
Gisborne Airport (GIS), New Zealand

Whilst many travellers are used to catching the train to the airport, something a tad more unusual might be catching the train… through the airport!

Located on New Zealand’s North Island, Gisborne Airport (GIS) is a small, regional airport that operates daily flights to Auckland and New Zealand’s capital, Wellington.

Something that may be surprising to some is one of the airport’s unique features: a functional railway line intersecting the main runway!

Construction of the Palmerston North–Gisborne line began in the late 1800s, with the line serving the route between the two cities of Palmerston North and Gisborne. Declining patronage led to the line being closed to passenger services in the early 2000s. The line now only serves freight services and occasional steam train excursions from Gisborne to the coastal area of Muriwai, operated by the Gisborne City Vintage Railway.

Train services run throughout the day before the runway is sealed off at night. Before a train can cross the runway, its driver must seek clearance from air traffic control officials. Airport authorities are tasked daily with coordinating arriving flights to prevent any accidents from occurring.

Gisborne Airport (GIS), New Zealand
Nowadays, freight trains mainly operate on the Palmerston North–Gisborne line © Chris Gordon (top) and XPinger (Chris Sutton) (bottom)

Svalbard Airport (LYR), Norway

Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago, is home to Svalbard Airport: the world’s northernmost airport to operate commercial flights. The airport, described as a destination in itself, opened in 1975 and is located close to the settlement of Longyearbyen. Its remote location means that it primarily serves local communities and mining settlements.

Airlines operating at the airport include Norwegian Air Shuttle and Scandinavian Airlines, both of which operate flights to and from the cities of Oslo and Tromsø. In addition, the airport operates charter flights by, for example, Lufttransport, a Norwegian airline that operates air ambulance helicopters and planes.

What makes the airport unique is the surface upon which its runway was built. The airport’s asphalt runway was built on continuous permafrost, and the soil under the runway is described as being relatively dry to ice-rich. Samples taken from the permafrost under the runway during the 1970s are reported to have contained ice lenses up to 50 mm in thickness.

Since its construction, climate fluctuations have made maintaining the runway ever more difficult, with one-third of the 2200 m-long paved runway being adversely affected by thaw settlement. The thaw settlement, attributed to permafrost degradation in cut sections, has led to settlement depressions and an uneven runway surface.

Owing to the above complications, there has been a need to patch and/or overlay the runway numerous times in the years since the airport’s completion in order to maintain its structural integrity. Now, however, the runway is better protected with the aid of insulation technology.

Svalbard Airport (LYR), Norway
Svalbard Airport’s runway has suffered from climatic degradation over the years © Sten S (first left), Zairon (top right) and Ssu (bottom right)

North America
Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV), Savannah, Georgia, United States

Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport holds the particularly unique title of being the location of the only graves in the world to be embedded in an active runway.

During World War II, the US federal government negotiated a lease with the City of Savannah to acquire over 1,000 acres of land to expand its military operations. Following this, the government began a programme to obtain additional land to enlarge facilities at Chatham Field, a command base and training station for the United States Army Air Corps. Astoundingly, the government’s acquisition included something rather unique: a private family cemetery.

Part of the land acquired included a private family cemetery that belonged to the Dotson family. The cemetery is believed to have contained more than one hundred graves, and whilst negotiations between the Dotson’s great-grandchildren and the federal government led to most of the graves being relocated to another cemetery in the city, four graves remained.

Although it was necessary to pave over the graves to build the runway, grave markers were placed to honour the original owners of the Dotson family farm, Richard and Catherine Dotson, who died in the late 1800s. Graves belonging to two of their relatives, Daniel Hueston and John Dotson, are also located in a nearby area of brush at the airport.

Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport (SAV), Savannah, Georgia, United States
Not one but four headstones are present at Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport © Savannah Airport Commission

South America
Galápagos Ecological Airport (GPS), Ecuador

Serving arguably one of the most ecologically important locations in the world, Galápagos Ecological Airport (GPS) is located on Baltra Island (also known as South Seymour), one of the Galápagos Islands in Ecuador. It serves just under half a million passengers per year. The airport opened in 2012 and offers a limited domestic service to and from Quito and Guayaquil, the capital city of and the second-largest city in Ecuador, respectively.

It is the airport’s status as the world’s first ecological airport, and its efforts to become carbon-neutral that make it stand out.

In 2014, the airport was awarded LEED Gold certification by the US Green Building Council, the highest existing reward in the field of sustainable construction, for its sustainable architecture. As an example of its sustainability efforts, the airport’s terminal was built using a mixture of recycled and ecologically manufactured materials. For example, the steel pipes that make up its structure were recovered from oil extraction fields of the Ecuadorian Amazon, and 75% of the materials from the old terminal were used to build the current terminal.

In addition, the airport possesses a fleet of electric vehicles, operates its own desalination plant and features a wind farm and photovoltaic panels, which allow the terminal to run on 100% renewable energy.

The aforementioned efforts to enhance its eco-efficient, carbon-neutral operations have also led to the airport achieving Level 3+ Airport Carbon Accreditation from Airports Council International, the first airport in Latin America and the Caribbean to reach such a level.

Sadly, however, the airport was the source of less positive headlines in 2021 when a police officer was arrested at the airport for his involvement in a smuggling incident involving over 150 juvenile turtles, the majority of which tragically perished.

Galápagos Ecological Airport (GPS), Ecuador
Galápagos Ecological Airport has been praised for its “green” initiatives © Patricia Henschen (top), M. Lozo (bottom left) and macraegi (bottom right)

Which airport did you find the most intriguing? Have you been to any of these unique airports? Let us know in the comments!

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Rachel Dunster
Rachel Dunster
Aviation Reporter