DALLAS – Located 160 miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, the Dutch and French Caribbean Archipelago is one of the top tourist destinations for aviation geeks from all over the world. But why is this so?
The answer lies in the spectacular airports located on the islands of Saba (SAB), which features the airport with the shortest runway in the world; Gustavia (SBH), with one of the most challenging approaches; or Saint Martin (SXM), which, in my opinion, is the closest place to paradise for anyone that has felt an attraction to aviation.
Warm, clear, and calm beaches, mixed with the spectacular action offered by low-flying aircraft, have helped the Caribbean become the location of some of the most famous airports in the world.
Today we will discuss when, where, and how these airports have evolved into what we know today.
The Beginnings of Princess Juliana International Airport
Princess Juliana International Airport began its operation in 1942 as a small airstrip for the US Military during its deployment in the Caribbean as part of their strategy for the Battle of the Atlantic, the longest continuous military campaign in World War II.
However, its history as a military airport lasted a short time, as the first commercial flight landed at SXM in December 1943.
In 1944, Queen Juliana of the Netherlands, who was still a princess, landed at the airport during an official visit from The Netherlands, which then inherited her name until today.
After the end of the war, and as the economy of the United States started to suffer an enormous growth, the Caribbean started to become a major tourist destination among the Americans, who chose Sint Maarten as one of the best choices for passengers looking for a warm holiday destination for the winter season.
Since then, leisure travel has always been the main source of income for the island, with more than US$700m just from tourism, employing 33.000 people from the island, or 80% of its population.
Between 1964 and 2001, Sint Maarten got into the most important project of development and modernization of its main airport, which consisted of a relocation and expansion of its terminal to be capable of handling 2.5 million passengers each year.
In addition, a longer runway was constructed along with the delimitation of a brand-new Runway End Safety Area (RESA) and bigger and better taxiways, which convinced the ICAO to approve the operations of aircraft as large as the Boeing 747-400.
This was a pioneering move by the island who, for the first time in history, was finally prepared to receive intercontinental flights from its two home countries: France and The Netherlands.
Princess Juliana Intl’, Today
Today, SXM is focused almost exclusively on receiving leisure travelers from North and Central America, the Caribbean, and a few European countries.
On a normal Saturday, the busiest day of the week for SXM, the airport receives more than 60 flights from dawn to dusk, operated by airlines such as Winair (WM), American Airlines (AA), Spirit Airlines (NK), Delta Air Lines (DL), United Airlines (UA), Air France (AF), and KLM (KL).
Winair is a regional airline based at SXM that operates a small route network interlinking the Dutch and French Caribbean archipelagos.
The creation of this WM in 1961 was a crucial factor in the development of local transport between the islands, which significantly reduced the travel time offered exclusively by ferries at the time.
Winair counts with a gentle fleet of only seven De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otters, which are perfect for the geographical context surrounding the operations of Winair.
The performance of this small but powerful aircraft enabled the success of Saba’s Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport, which has the shortest commercial airport runway in the world with no more than 400 m (1,300 ft) in length.
The airport receives two daily flights from Sint Maarten, reducing the travel time to just over ten minutes on board the Twin Otter.
A Detour to St. Barts, the Most Dangerous Approach
The other regional Caribbean carrier operating in SXM is St. Barth Commuter (PV), which offers an incredible number of 17 daily flights to the island from its neighboring island of Gustavia, home to another one of the world’s most incredible airports.
St. Jean Gustaf III Airport is located in the only moderately flat area of Gustavia, on the Caribbean island of Saint Barthélemy. However, the eastern side of the 2,000-foot runway is surrounded by a crystalline beach, while the western end of the runway is placed directly in front of a 50-meter hill.
This forces aircraft to land at SBH with an amazingly steep approach, flying less than two meters above a roundabout with constantly crossing cars, and leaving incredible images of the insane performance of aircraft such as the Twin Otter or the Cessna Grand Caravan.
Saint Martin’s Runway 10
Now, let’s talk about the gem of this story. The reason why Saint Martin’s SXM has grown in popularity during the last decades is Runway 10, located on a thin spread of land in the southwestern part of the island.
After its expansion in the 1960s, RWY-10 occupies almost all of the perimeter of the airport, with its western threshold ending on the small and calm Maho Beach.
Since then, Maho Beach has been the site that hosts one of the world’s most enthralling aircraft landings, flying a few meters over the beach and attracting the attention of tourists from all over the world.
Around midday, crowds of people gather around the end of the runway to experience the feeling of almost touching the landing gear of a Boeing 757, or the heavy jet blast of a departing Airbus A330, all of them while taking a relaxing bath at the beach while drinking a mojito.
It is clear that the special placement of the runway has greatly influenced the tourist attraction of the island, as plenty of chillout bars and hotels developed their products around the “Maho Beach Experience.”
The Sunset Beach Bar, one of the historic bars on the island, places every day a surf table at the entrance featuring the timetables of the arrivals to SXM with their respective aircraft, in order to attract tourists to visit the beach.
The Visit from the Queen of the Skies
Due to the historic connection with France and the Netherlands, Saint Martin expanded its airport facilities to accommodate intercontinental flights from Europe.
Before the Boeing 767 or the more recent Airbus A350, twin-engine aircraft didn’t have permission to fly long distances over the Atlantic Ocean, so airlines such as AF, KL, or Corsair (SS) needed to send four-engine aircraft like the Boeing 747 to the Caribbean to avoid the restriction.
However, the demand for travelers flying to the Antilles was not sufficient to economically sustain the flight of jumbo jets to the Caribbean. To sort this out, companies decided to combine two or more flights from Amsterdam or Paris to Curaçao, Pointe-a-Pitre, or Saint Martin into only one routing.
This meant that the Queen of the Skies would depart any of the European capitals towards the Caribbean and then perform a series of 20- to 30-minute flights between the islands to pick up the other passengers, just before its departure time back to Europe.
No other carrier could imagine flying such short distances with a double-decker plane, but in the Caribbean, this became a common and profitable practice until recently.
Unfortunately, after the introduction of ETOPS and more reliable and fuel-efficient aircraft, the Boeing 747 has been slowly retired from flying to the Caribbean, starting with AF, followed by SS, and lastly, in 2016, by KL.
The last regular Boeing 747 flight out of Saint Martin marked the end of a beautiful era at SXM. It was celebrated with a special ceremony, a water salute, and the gathering of hundreds of people at Maho Beach to say the last goodbye to the Queen of the Skies.
Featured and all images: Adrian Nowakowski/Airways