A bumpy landing can give even the most seasoned traveler the jitters, even if you know the odds are you’ll arrive safely. After all, flying is one of the safest modes of transportation out there. But at some airports, arrivals and departures are truly a white-knuckle experience. Flying into these airports isn’t totally unsafe — if the risk was too great, no airline or pilot would be attempting to land — but it can still put passengers (and sometimes even the crew) on edge. A few have even been the site of deadly crashes that have killed scores of passengers.
At these 15 airports, steep cliffs, fierce crosswinds, and other factors combine to test the nerve of even the most frequent flyers. Plus, find out which airlines have the worst safety ratings in the world.
15. Congonhas Airport
Location: São Paulo, Brazil
Annual passengers: 18.1 million
Pilots flying into Sao Paulo’s “infamous” Congonhas Airport know they should prepare. Originally built on the outskirts of the Brazilian capital, the airport is now surrounded by high rises. The runway is short and can be slippery, though there have been improvements since a deadly accident in 2007 when a jet skidded off the runway and burst into flames. All 187 passengers and 12 people on the ground died.
Next: 131 people died in a single accident at this location
14. Toncontìn International Airport
Location: Tegucigalpa, Honduras
Annual passengers: 617,500
Mountainous terrain, a short runway, and a tricky approach make landing at Toncontìn International Airport in Tegucigalpala, Honduras a nail-biter. Over the years, there have been several devastating accidents at the airport. In 1989, 131 people died when a Boeing 727 crashed into a mountain after pilots made mistakes when trying to land. Another accident in 2011 killed 14 people. Plans are underway to build a new, safer airport so that “passengers can land in an airport that doesn’t put their lives at risk,” Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez said.
Next: This U.S. airport is risky for its surroundings
13. Midway Airport
Location: Chicago, Illinois
Annual passengers: 21.1 million
Chicago’s Midway Airport is boxed in by the surrounding city, making landings and takeoffs here a bit tricky and prompting Airfarewatchdog to dub it one of the scariest airports in America. The entire airport is one square mile in area, with houses, hotels, and busy streets on all sides, leaving no buffer zone if things go wrong. In 2005, a Boeing 737 careened off a snow-covered runway and into traffic on the other side of the airport fence, killing a six-year-old boy in a car. Since then, there’s a new system that will bring jets to a halt at the end of the runway, but passengers still need to be prepared for a hard landing and a fast stop.
Next: Want to climb Mount Everest? You’ll have to brave this scary airport first.
12. Tenzing-Hillary Airport
Location: Chaurikharka, Nepal
Annual passengers: Not reported
For Mount Everest climbers, the adventure begins well before they reach base camp. First, they must endure the hair-raising flight into Nepal’s Tenzing-Hillary Airport (also known as Lukla Airport). The small airport is atop a high cliff, with a downward sloping runway that’s a mere 65 feet wide and 1,500 feet long. At one end of the pavement is a 2,000-foot drop, and at the other is a wall of rock. Unpredictable weather conditions make flying into this airport even more challenging. There have been several serious accidents at Lukla, including a 2008 crash that killed 18 people and a May 2017 accident where two people died.
Next: Pilots must have special training to land here
11. Cristiano Ronaldo Airport
Location: Santa Cruz, Portugal
Annual passengers: 2.5 million
Passengers flying into Cristiano Ronaldo Airport on the Portuguese island of Madeira won’t soon forget the experience. Planes landing on the single runway must contend with serious crosswinds, as well as a mountain on one side and a steep drop off into the ocean on the other. In 1977, 131 people died after a jet crashed when trying to land in bad weather. Since then, they’ve extended the runway several times (much of it is now on stilts over the water) and the airport is far safer. Still, pilots need special training to fly here, and landing can be a frightening experience for visitors.
Next: This airport requires planes to fly dangerously close to onlookers
10. Princess Juliana International Airport
Location: Simpson Bay, St. Maarten
Annual passengers: 1.8 million
The approach to Princess Juliana International Airport on the Caribbean island of St. Martin is one of the most famous in the world, at least among aviation buffs. Here, large jets swoop in from over the water and fly low over a crowded beach before hitting the runway. Though the landing looks scary, there haven’t been any major crashes at the airport. But things can get dicey for plane-spotters on the ground. In July 2017, a woman watching flights take off died after the blast from a jet pushed her into a retaining wall.
Next: Tiny planes make a steep approach to this airport
9. Gustaf III Airport
Location: St. John, St. Barts
Annual passengers: Not reported
After gripping the armrests on their flight to St. Martin, vacationers on their way to the nearby island of St. Barts have another nerve-wracking landing to deal with. Only tiny planes carrying a max of 20 people can land at Gustaf III Airport, and there’s a steep approach to the short runway. On takeoffs, planes must fly over a beach filled with lounging tourists. In 2016, a man trying to snap a picture of a landing was clipped by a plane and in 2001, 20 people died when their plane crashed while trying to land on the island.
Next: Only 25 pilots are qualified to fly in and out of this destination
8. Paro Airport
Location: Paro, Bhutan
Annual passengers: 182,000
High altitude, surrounding mountains, and unpredictable weather conditions all combine to make Bhutan’s Paro Airport “one of the world’s most challenging airports” with “no margin for error,” according to Aviation Week. The runway, located in a narrow valley among the Himalayan peaks, is more than 7,300 feet above sea level, and planes land on a strip that’s just 7,340 feet long and 98 feet wide. According to Popular Mechanics, the conditions are so tough that there are only 25 pilots qualified to fly in and out of Paro.
Next: Winds and high altitude make for a dicey landing at this U.S. airport
7. Aspen/Pitkin County Airport
Location: Pitkin County, Colorado
Annual passengers: 248,000
Not all scary airports are abroad. The Aspen/Pitkin County Airport is one of the most challenging in the U.S. for pilots, according to a report from Honeywell. Winds and high altitude can make landing and taking off at this popular ski spot harrowing, especially if the pilot doesn’t have much experience. Over the years, there have been several serious accidents, prompting Minnesota Public Radio to dub it one of the “nation’s deadliest airports.”
Next: Sandy landings are common here
6. Barra Airport
Location: Eoligarry, Scotland
Annual passengers: 10,700
Many travelers hop on a plane to head to the beach. But what if the beach was the runway? That’s the case on the island of Barra in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, which has the world’s only beach airport with scheduled, commercial flights. Planes land right on the sand, provided the tide is out. Whether you find that charming or terrifying probably depends on your constitution.
Next: This dangerous airport was made famous by James Bond
5. Courchevel Airport
Report: Saint-Bon-Tarentaise, France
Annual passengers: Not reported
For the most part, we’ve restricted this list to airports with scheduled flights. But we couldn’t leave out France’s Courchevel Airport. You may recognize this tiny, Alpine airport from the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies. Pilots brave enough to attempt a landing here must contend with a runway that’s just roughly 1,700 feet long and has a scary drop-off at one end. There are no lights, and the surrounding mountains mean that pilots must land successfully on their first try. Conditions are so tricky that you can’t even charter a plane to take you there, though some privately-owned planes do land there.
Next: The shortest commercial landing strip in the world makes for risky landings
4. Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport
Location: Hell’s Gate, Caribbean Netherlands
Annual passengers: 20,000+
The ultra-short runway at this airport on the Caribbean island of Saba makes landings a challenge. Pilots must touch down on a strip of pavement that’s only 1,312 feet long, with cliffs on both ends, hills on one side, and the ocean on the other. According to the island’s tourism board, it’s the shortest commercial runway in the world.
Next: Cars have to stop to allow planes to land at this location
3. Gibraltar Airport
Annual passengers: 652,000
The British territory of Gibraltar isn’t very big. With limited square footage, some areas have to pull double duty. So, you shouldn’t be surprised when your plane rolls across the city’s main drag upon landing. Cars on Winston Churchill Boulevard periodically have to stop in order to let jets through. It might be safe, but it’s definitely a little nerve-wracking for flyers and drivers alike.
Next: Civil war makes this place a dangerous landing spot
2. Damascus International Airport
Location: Damascus, Syria
Annual passengers: Not reported
It’s not high mountains, sheer cliffs, or bad weather that make Damascus International Airport a dangerous airport, according to some. It’s the civil war currently raging in Syria. Few international airlines currently serve the city due to the conflict, and those that do have to contend with occasional fighting around the airport. In 2012, a military helicopter hit a plane that had left the airport, but thankfully the flight returned to Damascus safely.
Next: Landing here meant flying flush to apartment buildings
1. Kai Tak Airport
Location: Kowloon, Hong Kong
Annual passengers: 29.5 million in 1996, before closing
Depending on who you ask, arriving at Hong Kong’s Kai Tak airport was either thrilling or terrifying. Pilots flying into this airport had to make a low-altitude turn and then navigate over the crowded apartment buildings and busy streets of the Kowloon neighborhood (flyers could even see into people’s windows). Landings were especially challenging when it was windy. The airport closed in 1998, but aviation buffs and pilots won’t forget this one-of-a-kind airport.
Next: Find out which airlines have the worst safety ratings.
The most dangerous airlines
If you have a fear of flying, you might not just be worried about unsafe airports. Chances are, you’re concerned about the airline you’re flying as well. And some airlines are definitely better than others. AirlineRatings.com assigns hundreds of carriers around the world a star rating for safety. The best airlines get seven stars, while the worst only have one or two.
The good news is that all major carriers in the U.S. and Europe have excellent safety ratings, as do most airlines you’d be flying on trips to places like Asia and South America. Things get a little dicey with some regional and low-cost airlines in the developing world, as well as national carriers in certain countries. Some of these airlines are even banned in the EU.
The worst major airlines for safety, according to Airline Ratings, include:
- Nepal Airlines: 1/7 stars
- Ariana Afghan Airlines: 2/7
- AirAsia Indonesia: 2/7
- Iraqi Airlines: 2/7 stars
- Afriqiyah Airways: 3/7
- Drukair Royal Bhutan: 3/7 stars
- Libyan Airlines: 3/7
- Somon Air: 3/7
- Tajik Air: 3/7