Air travel has gone from strength to strength since the Wright brothers invented the first pilot controlled aircraft in 1903. After a steep increase in aircraft production during the World Wars, a move was made towards commercial air travel by the 1950s when the large body planes took to the sky. By 1976, Concorde’s luxury supersonic flight reduced crossing the Atlantic to just three hours.
Over the last three decades, the industry has been striving to create bigger, better, faster, sleeker, safer, greener and more efficient ways to travel. The industry took a leap forward in 2007 with the introduction of the A380, the world’s largest commercial aircraft that has the ability to carry more passengers than any other.
The progress of design and technology has also extended to airports around the world. If you fly with Emirates to Dubai you’ll arrive at the Emirates hub in Terminal 3, one of the largest buildings in the world in terms of floor space. The first class facilities include an on-site hotel, so you can relax between connections, as well as plenty of restaurants and shops to keep you entertained. Airport terminals like this now feel like small, self-contained towns, in fact some are bigger than small towns!
Unique airports around the world
Read our mini-guide to extreme airports around the world.
All big city airports feel busy, but London Heathrow is officially the world’s busiest airport in terms of international passengers travelling through its terminals. The airport reports that during 2012, an incredible 69.98 million passengers (65.3 million of which were international passengers) arrived and departed. The airport’s busiest day was 31 July 2011, when 233,561 passengers passed through the airport.
Guinness Book of World Records lists Harsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as the busiest airport in terms of the number of aircraft taking off and landing. In 2011, 924,000 planes used the airport, and with a staggering 92 million passengers travelling through, it is the busiest airport in the world for both domestic and international travellers combined.
King Fahd International Airport in Saudi Arabia is the largest airport in the world. It takes up 780 square kilometres, roughly the same size as New York or larger than the neighbouring country of Bahrain!
The impressive terminal has six stories, including an area that is reserved entirely for the Royal Family.
Sitting at 4,334m above sea level, and hugged by the surrounding mountains, Bangda Airport in Tibet is a scenic (if nail biting) destination to land in. Thankfully the runway is longer to account for the longer stopping distance due to the atmospheric resistance caused by the altitude. However, construction is underway to build an even higher airport. Naggu, also in Tibet, is due to open in 2014 and will be at an altitude of 4,436m. With average temperatures remaining below zero throughout the year, this is a difficult part of the world to build and operate an airport.
The shortest runway in the world can be found on Saba, a tiny island in the Caribbean that is administered by the Netherlands. Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport is flanked on one side by high hills and the landing strip is just 396m long, with cliffs dropping off into the sea at each end. Only small planes and helicopters can land and take off from the airport, as most commercial liners are far too large for such a short space.
In the mountainous monarchy of Lesotho lies the scariest runway in the world. The take-off strip literally runs off a cliff due to the lack of flat space in the region to fit a full length runway. Often planes are forced to plunge off the 610m high cliff and take flight during the drop in order to get airborne.
Singapore’s Changi Airport has been announced as the World’s Best Airport 2013 at the World Airport Awards. The awards are voted for by customers and this year the survey had 12.1 million responses. It has been in the top three of the awards for the last 14 years and has won the award four times. It also won the Best Airport in Asia and Best Airport Leisure Amenities, proving Changi is a great place for a layover.
Barra Airport in Scotland may look like any other small island airport, but pilots have to check the tide chart as well as the weather and air traffic before setting off for the destination. This is because one of the three runways used for commercial aircraft is underwater a high tide!