by Kathy Wolfe

This week, Tidbits takes to the air to scope out some of the world’s airports.

As of 2022, there are 13,513 airports or airfields in the United States, more than any other country in the world. Brazil is a distant second with just under 4,100. The runways may be paved or unpaved, but must be recognizable from the air in order to be counted.

    There are different methods of determining the world’s largest airport. One is by physical size, which gives the honor to Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd International, occupying nearly 300 square miles, about the size of all five New York City boroughs combined. But despite its size, King Fahd is only the third-busiest airport in Saudi Arabia, with about 9.7 million passengers annually. The airport that hosts the most passengers is in Guangzhou, China, with nearly 44 million passengers passing through every year. Seven out of ten of the world’s highest passenger counts are at airports in China.      The distinction of the largest total volume — the most take-offs and landings — belongs to Atlanta, Georgia’s airport.

    The world’s tallest air traffic control tower is at Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah King Abdulaziz International Airport. At 446 feet (136 m), it stands taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur tower is a close second at 439 feet (133.8), comprising 33 floors and a rooftop. Atlanta, Georgia, is home to the tallest tower in North America, 398 feet tall (121.3 m).

Merchants National Bank

Denver International Airport, by physical size, is the second-largest airport in the world, with an area of about 53 square miles (136 sq. km) – larger than Manhattan — and has the longest public use runway in North America. Located 25 miles (40 km) from downtown Denver, it’s 19 miles (31 km) farther from downtown than Stapleton International Airport, which it replaced in 1995. Stapleton had been the city’s primary airport since 1929, but had no room to add additional flights and its runways were too close together to accommodate jets properly. The property was redeveloped as a commercial and residential neighborhood. DIA opened 16 months behind schedule and $2 billion over budget. With 35,000 employees, it’s Colorado’s largest employer. DIA experiences upwards of 48,000 items in their Lost and Found department every year.

San Francisco’s airport is built atop giant steel ball bearings that enable the building to move 20 inches (51 cm) in any direction during an earthquake. Each ball bearing is 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter and is built into each of the 267 columns that support the weight of the airport. When the ground moves, the bearings move, but the building does not.

    San Francisco also has an unusual therapy animal to help anxious travelers calm down before a flight. LiLou is the airport’s therapy pig, a hog who wears various costumes including a ballerina tutu while she performs tricks throughout the terminal.

      Only one airport in the world has terminals in two countries, that of the Tijuana, Mexico International Airport. The airport lies right along the U.S. border and has a terminal in both Mexico and the United States.

From 1963 to 1998, Chicago’s O’Hare Airport was the world’s busiest airport. It is currently in fourth place, serving about 27 million passengers annually. The airport opened in 1944 as Orchard Field Airport, but was renamed in 1949 to honor U.S. Navy pilot Edward O’Hare. The airport has 193 gates servicing 44 airlines, with about 760 domestic non-stop flights to U.S. cities daily.   

      Paro Airport in the country of Bhutan high in the Himalayan Mountains is one of the world’s most challenging airports to land in, so much so that only eight pilots are certified to land there. Located 7,332 feet (2,235 m) above sea level, this airport is surrounded by the peaks of the Himalayas rising as high as 18,000 feet (5,500 m). Pilots must land on a tiny runway cut out of dense forests while frequently battling ferocious winds roaring through the valley. About 30,000 people fly into mountainous Bhutan every year.

      If you want to fly to the Caribbean island of Saba, you’ll be landing on the shortest commercial runway in the world, just 1,312 ft. (400 m) long. Both ends of the runway drop into the sea. Jets are unable to land on the tiny island with an area of just 5 sq. miles (13 sq. km), but the runway accommodates helicopters and STOL (Short Take-Off and Landing) aircraft.

    For more than 20 years, Toronto’s Pearson International Airport has employed more than 30 birds of prey to scare away other birds to reduce bird strikes on airplanes. Falcons, hawks, and bald eagles frighten away geese, herons, and other nuisance birds that can fly into plane engines and knock out the engines’ power. The most famous incident was in 2009 when Captain Chesley Sullenberger glided a jet into the Hudson River after a bird strike during take-off from New York’s LaGuardia Airport. All Canadian airports are required to have a wildlife control program in place.

    In the 1970s, the city of Montreal had colossal plans to build the biggest airport in the world. After the huge success of Expo 67 and the upcoming 1976 Summer Olympics, the city began planning for a new airport with six runways and six terminals, with a vision of grandeur. Their current airport at the time, Dorval, while having undergone modernization, was still considered too small to handle Montreal’s projected population increase to 7 million by the year 2000. The new airport, Mirabel, opened in October, 1975, and was in fact the world’s largest, and was to be the hub for international travel. It was built out in the country, 30 miles (48 km) from Montreal, to combat noise levels and complaints from city dwellers. The airport never reached its full potential expectations of 40 million passengers a year by 2000. Dorval Airport, just 20 minutes from the city, never closed as was the initial plan, and Mirabel was considered too far and hard to access. Cab fare to the airport easily topped $100. Montreal’s population growth didn’t reach projections, and soon, Toronto became the preferred airport for international flights. Mirabel never handled more than 3 million passengers annually, and in October, 2004, the last commercial passenger flight took off. The once-state-of-the-art terminal, abandoned in 2004, was demolished in 2016, and Mirabel now functions as a cargo airport only.