Princess Juliana International Airport is the main airport bringing tourists to the Caribbean island of Saint Martin. This tiny island, curiously enough, is split into two territories – a French half in the north, and a Dutch half in the south. At just over 87 square kilometers, it is the smallest inhabited island in the world that has an international border.
The airport is located on the Dutch side of the island, and was built in 1942 as a military base. Shortly thereafter, it was converted to civilian use and named after Juliana of the Netherlands, who was then a princess and would later become the Queen of the Netherlands. Today, Princess Juliana International Airport receives over a million travelers each year, and is the main point of access for this popular resort island.
The airport is remarkable for being so close to the beach – its main runway is just a couple hundred feet from the water’s edge! This makes for a beautiful approach, as the plane seems to skim just above the sparkling Caribbean waters and the beachgoers who have gathered to watch the planes land. The planes fly just 30-60 feet above the water, which makes for an extremely dramatic sight.
Seeing an airplane land from up close is a unique experience for travelers, and many people go to Maho Beach on the southwest corner of the island specifically to watch the takeoffs and landings. This is less dangerous than it might seem, but you still have to be careful: several beachgoers have been injured by getting too close to the runway as the planes are taking off, and getting blown off their feet by the jet stream. If you want to go planespotting by the runway, stay back from the fence and be sure to protect your eyes from blowing sand.
Some websites and even the History Channel have included Princess Juliana Airport on their list of the world’s most dangerous airports, but this is pure sensationalism. The footage of low-flying planes is certainly dramatic, but the airport has recorded only two fatal incidents in its 70 years of operation, both due to a combination of bad weather, insufficient fuel, and human error. In other words, every fatal incident at this airport was caused by factors that could have produced a crash anywhere – they had nothing to do with Juliana’s proximity to the beach. In both cases, the airplanes crashed into the water and did not harm anyone on the beach.