(Image: Milos Bicanski/Getty Images; abandoned international airports)
The world is full of disused and derelict airfields, from isolated airstrips to modern military bases. But abandoned international airports are less common. The enormous costs involved in sourcing suitable locations and replacing their vast infrastructures from the ground up can make such projects prohibitive in many cities and countries. But nevertheless they do exist, having fallen into disuse for a variety of reasons. This article explore some of the world’s most impressive and bizarre international airports which are no longer operational, from vast abandoned hubs unable to cope with the demands of modern aviation to embarrassing failures and airports detroyed by conflict.
Abandoned Yasser Arafat International Airport, Gaza
Built for a total cost of $86 million to serve the Gaza Strip in the Palestinian territories, Gaza International Airport opened in 1998 but remained operational for just three years. In 2001, the control tower and radar station were bombed by the Israel Defense Force during the al-Aqsa Intifada. Airport staff continued to man the ticket counters and baggage areas until 2006, despite the fact that Israeli forces had bulldozed the runway in 2002, rendering it unusable.
Despite strong condemnation from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and calls for the airport to be restored, the facility, which had been renamed Yasser Arafat International Airport, remained in ruins. Shattered tarmac has since been reused in other local construction projects, and in 2010 more than 7,000 Gazan children aged six to 15 set a Guinness World Record by simultaneously dribbling basketballs on an undamaged section of ramp. The destruction of the abandoned international airport rendered the tiny Gaza Airstrip the only serviceable runway in the region.
Abandoned Ellinikon International Airport, Athens, Greece
(Images: deconcrete.org; abandoned Ellinikon International Airport)
Ellinikon in Athens, Greece, is arguably one of the most impressive abandoned international airports around, if for no other reason than the hulking carcasses of decommissioned airliners still parked on its decaying ramp. Located just four miles south of Athens, Ellinikon International Airport opened in 1938 and was soon occupied by Nazi forces who used it as a Luftwaffe base during World War Two. It remained in military hands after the war, this time America ones, who used Ellinikon for operations in the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East until 1991.
Finally back in civilian hands, Ellinikon International Airport became the home of Greek flag flyer Olympic Airlines (several of its abandoned aircraft, including a Boeing 747 Jumbo Jet, remain there today). But when Athens’ new airport was built as part of the Summer Olympics package, Ellinikon ceased operating in 2001. The defunct airport’s facilities were used during the games and today Google Earth reveals an odd mix of decommissioned infrastructure and disused runways interrupted by modern sports facilities, football stadiums, AstroTurf pitches and faded Olympic Rings, much of it in less than great condition. Whatever the future is for Ellinikon, like many other abandoned international airports, its aviation days are behind it. (Take a look inside the Boeing 747 here.)
Abandoned Sheffield City Airport, UK
Until 1997, Sheffield was the only major UK city without an airport. In 2008, it returned to that status. During those 11 interim years, Sheffield City Airport offered a superb location closer to a city centre than any of its regional rivals. But the project was poorly conceived and the airport built with a runway that was too short, ruling out anything bigger than turbo-props serving a handful of destinations. Having failed to attract more profitable services, the last scheduled flight left Sheffield in 2002, just five years after the airport had opened.
Since then the terminal building has been converted into office space and the runway is set to be turned into a business park. A campaign was underway spearheaded by the South Yorkshire Federation of Small Businesses to restore passenger services at Sheffield City Airport. Extending the runway by 1,000 feet would have brought it into line with the popular London City Airport. But without the support of the council, the airport was always in danger of going the same way as other controversial Sheffield failures such as Don Valley Stadium and Sheffield Ski Village.
At the time of writing, the Sheffield Telegraph reported that diggers have moved in and the airport’s runway will soon be redeveloped.
Abandoned Nicosia International Airport, Cyprus
(Images: Ilya Varlamov; abandoned Nicosia International Airport, derelict for decades)
Unlike many abandoned international airports that have been demolished or repurposed, Nicosia International Airport stands eerily frozen in time. The abandoned terminal building retains rows of utilitarian seats covered in a blanket of dust, while the former check-in counters create a distinctly ’70s feel in the silent departures hall. The airport has remained derelict since the Turkish Invasion of Cyprus in 1974, and is now under the control of the United Nations and a contingent of UN peacekeepers. As such, it is off-limits to the general public and unlikely to be returned to commercial services any time soon.
Two abandoned aircraft, relics of its commercial aviation days, cling to life on the field. An Avro Shackleton lies on its belly on the far west side of the main runway, a torn United Nations flag draped over its starboard wing. Meanwhile, the gutted shell of a former Cyprus Airways Hawker Siddeley Trident still stands on the ramp north of the terminal, its airframe damaged beyond repair during the Turkish Invasion 40 years ago and subsequently looted. Despite the dereliction, the airport’s runways, ramps and other infrastructure appear reasonably intact. (More photos here.)
Abandoned Stapleton International Airport, Denver, USA
Stapleton International Airport served Denver, Colorado for more than 60 years until the city’s new hub – the largest in the United States by surface area with the longest public use runway – opened in 1995. After the last flight left Stapleton on February 25 that year (Continental Flight 34 bound for London Gatwick), the airport’s six massive runways fell dormant and redevelopment of the site began in earnest. Stapleton International Airport opened in 1929 as Denver Municipal Airport and was renamed in 1944 in honour of Benjamin F. Stapleton, who served as mayor of Denver from 1923 to 1947. When the airport closed in 1995, the original Concourse A, built in 1929, was still in use.
At its peak, Stapleton International Airport served as a hub for Frontier, Continental, United Airlines and TWA before the latter was acquired by American Airlines. But Denver’s unpredictable weather and wind patterns combined with insufficient runway separation and lack of room for expansion all added to congestion at the airport and necessitated the construction of a new international hub. Prior to closing, scenes from Die Hard II were filmed at Stapleton. Once vast abandoned international airports are wiped off the landscape, their remains often endure for years. So it is with Stapleton: the original 12-storey control tower has been preserved, and Google Earth reveals white lines still painted down the centre of an abandoned runway.
Ghost Hub: Ciudad Real Central Airport, Spain
(Images: jmiguel rodriguez; a silent ghost airport south of Toledo)
Located 87 miles south of Toledo, Ciudad Real Central Airport opened in 2009 but closed just three years later. Formerly known as Don Quijote and South Madrid Airport, the abandoned facility was designed to serve 10 million passengers each year. It was also set to be connected to the Madrid–Seville high-speed rail line, meaning that passengers could be in downtown Madrid within just 50 minutes. But in 2012 its management company went into receivership and the 1.1 billion euro airport project collapsed. The last scheduled flight took off from the 13,123 ft runway in December 2011, leaving its modern passenger terminal eerily quiet.
Meanwhile, large yellow crosses daubed across the 60 metre wide landing strip denote that the runway is now disused, its instrument approaches removed from official aviation documents (not that it stopped the Top Gear presenters rallying their cars on it). Since it closed, authorities have had trouble finding a buyer and on July 27, 2014 Ciudad Real Central Airport’s sale deadline was extended for a seventh time and the asking price reduced to 80 million euros. A sorry reflection of Spain’s struggling economy, this abandoned international airport is but one among many new developments to barely if ever seen use, left as ghost towns and ruined monuments to the Spanish property bubble.
Silent Castellón–Costa Azahar Airport, Spain
(Image: Sanbec; another abandoned international airport in Spain)
Spain has several abandoned international airports, this one an even bigger white elephant than Ciudad Real Central. Located in the municipality of Vilanova d’Alcolea near Valencia, it’s something of a stretch to describe Castellón–Costa Azahar Airport as “international” due to its lack of regional action, let alone further afield. Despite the fact that the 150 million euro airport was declared “open” in March 2011, it received no government approval to operate and no airlines are registered to land there. Commercial flights were due to begin, perhaps appropriately, on April Fool’s Day 2012, but as of January 2014 Castellón–Costa Azahar Airport has yet to host one.
Considered symbolic of a culture of wasteful spending that further crippled Spain’s economy when the recession hit, Castellón–Costa Azahar Airport, with its single 8,858 ft runway, has even sponsored several local sports teams to the tune of 26 million euros, despite never operating a commercial service. Some reports suggest that the runway needs modification before it can be used, while others claim it could be bulldozed. Ironically, an art installation at the airport entrance stands in honour of local politician Carlos Fabra, the driving force behind the project who has since been investigated for corruption.
Montreal-Mirabel International Airport, Canada
(Image: Russell Sutherland, Google Earth; Quebec’s abandoned international airport)
The ambitious Montreal-Mirabel International Airport in Quebec, Canada, opened to much fanfare in 1975. The scope was epic: the airport would serve 50 million passengers each year and become the biggest in the world when completed. With 397 square kilometers of surface area and its own dedicated subway system, Montreal-Mirabel was larger than the city of Montreal which it served. The airport opened with no expense spared in time for the Montreal Summer Olympics but its distance from the downtown (34 miles) and sluggish passenger numbers due to economic competition from Toronto soon made it superfluous.
In a failed effort to save Montreal-Mirabel Airport, Canada insisted that all international flights to the city land there rather than the more centrally located Dorval (now Trudeau). But thanks to that disastrous piece of decision making, airlines decided to skip Montreal entirely, heading instead for the competition in Ontario and hammering the last nail into the Montreal airport’s coffin. Well, almost. Montreal-Mirabel has been relegated to what must arguably be one of the world’s most impressive cargo facilities. The area around the passenger terminal has become a race track, though the building itself did play a role vaguely akin to that for which it was intended. When the last passenger flight departed in 2004, Hollywood moved in to film the aptly named Tom Hanks movie, Terminal.
Repurposed: Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, Germany
Now for a more unusual example of a previously abandoned international airport: Tempelhof in Berlin is in the midst of transformation into a public park and community centre, retaining much of the original infrastructure including its two runways. During its dark wartime history, Tempelhof Airport served as the only official SS concentration camp in Berlin before playing a role in the Berlin Airlift of 1948/49. Built on land once occupied by the Knights Templar, Tempelhof Airport was intended by the Nazis to be the world’s largest terminal until it was looted by the Soviets and occupied by allied forces during World War Two. Old radiators from the airport have since been found in Moscow.
Despite its tumultuous past, Tempelhof is a peaceful place today, and after a century of aviation use, the former international airport closed to air traffic in 2008. Now Berlin’s biggest park, a limited budget overs the upkeep of the airport’s landscape and buildings, earning it the nickname ‘Tempelhof Wasteland’ among some locals. Plans for a library and horticulture centre are set to be unveiled at the International Garden Show in 2017. In the meantime, locals and tourists alike can walk the length of the disused runways, wander the landscape and visit an abandoned Nord 262 aircraft resting in the middle of the field, a rusting relic of Tempelhof’s past.
Abandoned Kai Tak Airport, Hong Kong
No list of abandoned international airports (or non-abandoned ones, for that matter) would be complete without Hong Kong’s notorious Kai Tak, which from 1925 until 1998 scared the living daylights out of nervous flyers as their planes descended through the island’s mountains and skyscrapers. Ranked as the sixth most dangerous airport in the world by the History Channel, landing on the famous Runway 13 involved passing over the densely populated area of Western Kowloon then a sharp, 47 degree turn at a checkerboard marker on in the hills above the airport. If all went according to plan, airliners would level out at just 140 feet before touching down, in a manoeuver known to pilots as the “Hong Kong Turn” and to passengers as the “Kai Tak Heart Attack”.
Fortunately, Kai Tak was replaced in 1998 by the new Hong Kong International Airport, 19 miles to the west and far less technically demanding for pilots. Over the years the airport infrastructure, including runway and taxiways, has been steadily dismantled. The site, which for years had been the home of Cathay Pacific, was still effectively derelict as of 2011. But by summer 2013 the new Kai Tak Cruise Terminal had opened on the tip of the abandoned runway and two public housing estates had sprung up to the northeast. As of August 2014, the neglected hilltop checkerboard survives, half hidden by natural foliage. Kai Tak Airport may be no more, but those who landed on Runway 13 over the years will not forget the experience in a hurry.