The moment when you hear your plane’s engines spool back and you begin to descend towards the airport is always one to savour. The pilot makes the much-anticipated final announcement that, after however many hours in the air, you’ll soon be landing, and the crew begin their final checks. Whether you’re visiting somewhere for the first time, or returning somewhere familiar, those final few minutes as you approach your destination rarely fail to create a buzz around the cabin.
But which airport descents boast the most spectacular views, or the approaches that leave passengers with the biggest smiles? Our crack team of flying experts (flexperts?) have ranked their favourites.
1. Princess Juliana International Airport, St Maarten (SXM)
Nearly always at the top of any runway rundown, the airstrip on this idyllic Caribbean island starts just at the water’s edge. This means the final approach to St Maarten over Maho Beach brings in aircraft just metres above the sand. You’ll often see thrill-seekers ignoring the advice of the local authorities and lining up against the fence adjacent to Runway 10, to experience the noise and rush of the jets seconds before they touchdown. Thrilling? Yes. Recommended? No. The more prudent, or faint-hearted, usually retreat to the nearby Sunset Beach Bar to enjoy the experience from a safe distance.
2. London City Airport, UK (LCY)
Call us biased, but we think the smallest, and most perfectly formed, of the airports serving London provides one of the greatest city-view airport descents anywhere in the world. Whether you’re approaching London City Airport from the east or west (depending on which side of the aircraft you’re on, and assuming it’s a cloud-free day), you’ll follow the Thames and get a bird’s-eye view of all of the capital’s sights, from St Paul’s Cathedral to The Shard, the London Eye to Docklands and the O2 arena. To paraphrase Dr Johnson, it’s a sight of which it’s impossible to grow tired – regardless of how frequent a flyer you are.
3. Barra, UK (BRR)
Nowhere else on earth does a commercial airport use a tidal beach as its runway. Flights to this stunning remote island in the Outer Hebrides run from Glasgow, but aircraft can only land when the sea is out from the bay of Traigh Mhòr, making flight times variable. The ‘runways’ are nothing more than sandy strips marked by permanent wooden poles at either end, making every flight an adventure for passengers, as well as for the cockle-pickers, dog walkers and sunbathers on the beach itself – who quickly learn to keep an eye on the windsock, which when up, indicates the three airstrips are open.
4. Gibraltar Airport, British Overseas Territory (GIB)
A rocky outcrop located to the south of the Iberian Peninsula, Gibraltar was ceded in perpetuity to Great Britain from Spain in 1713. With relations still a little frosty, all arrivals and departures have to make a turn to avoid Spanish airspace around the town of Algeciras. It’s one of our favourite airport descents. Expect fantastic views and a swift landing on the short runway, which juts out in to the bay and is overlooked by the famous profile of the Rock of Gibraltar. It’s also intersected by the main road to and from Spain, Winston Churchill Avenue – which must be closed for each take-off and landing.
5. Nice Cote d’Azur Airport, France (NCE)
Nice Airport is framed by the Mediterranean on one side, and the Alps on the other – creating a suitably spectacular backdrop as you descend in to one of the most glamorous hotspots in Europe. If the winds allow, and you land on one of the south-westerly facing runways, then you will be treated to a close-up view of downtown Nice as you make a late left turn around the bay, just before you land.
6. Innsbruck Airport, Austria (INN)
This popular Austrian ski location makes for one of Europe’s most exhilarating airport descents, as you get gradually lower in the Inn Valley and the snow-covered Alps rising up all around you. Only specially trained pilots are allowed to fly into Innsbruck, which requires them to navigate around pinnacles thousands of metres high before they drop down in to the valley, where the airstrip is located. Provided the skies are clear, passengers are treated to incredible views on their descent and, of course, once they’ve landed.
7. Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport, USA (DCA)
Given the many sensitive locations dotted around America’s capitol, it’s no surprise that landing a plane in Washington DC is the aviation equivalent of threading a needle. Having negotiated a River Visual approach (following the path of the Potomac, with lights on the various bridges that span it to assist them during bad weather or night time descents), the pilot must also avoid the airspace around the Pentagon before landing. Take offs aren’t much easier, requiring them to bank steeply to the left, lest they find themselves near the White House and in danger of disturbing the current President’s latest Twitter tirade.
8. Queenstown International Airport, New Zealand (ZQN)
Flying over New Zealand is always a treat, but Queenstown takes the crown when it comes to airport descents. You’ll feel like you’re flying straight into Middle Earth when you see the stunning scenery. The crystal-clear waters of Lake Wakatipi paired with the dramatic backdrop of the Southern Alps makes for an awe-inspiring arrival into New Zealand.
9. Christiano Ronaldo Airport, Madeira, Portugal (FCN)
This remote Portuguese island sits way out in the Atlantic and is famed for two things. The first is having a dramatically situated airport. And the second – Madeira is the birthplace of one of the world’s greatest footballers, after whom the airport was recently renamed. With the sea on one side, and mountains and cragged terrain on the other, it’s already a demanding approach. Add to that a runway that extends on to stilts at one end and frequent high winds (it’s the only airport in the world with a mandatory wind limit), and you can expect a unique – if a little bumpy – arrival.
10. McCarran International Airport, USA (LAS)
There’s more to Sin City than high stakes and high living. Home to some of the most ostentatious hotels and casinos in the world, Las Vegas‘ bright lights make for a glittering descent for night-time arrivals. The neon Strip glows like a beacon amidst the surrounding darkness of the Mojave Desert. During the day, meanwhile, flights from the east often pass over the Hoover Dam before coming in low over jagged red mountains and Las Vegas Boulevard, moments before touching down at McCarran International. It makes for one of the most dramatic airport descents – not that you’d expect anything less from Vegas.
11. Toronto City Airport, Canada (YYZ)
Lots of city-based airports can boast of a spectacular view for visitors to enjoy on their final approach. We’ve already picked out London, Las Vegas and Queenstown, but Cape Town, Seattle and Hong Kong could all have made the cut. However, we think that Toronto’s combination of glistening skyscapers, snow-capped mountains and sprawling lake just beats them. Like its peers, its proximity to the city itself also brings with it the great benefit of convenience – a big plus for weary flyers eager to freshen up and start exploring after their journey.