We recently took a quick family trip to St. Barts, a French overseas territory about 20 miles from St. Martin. While there’s a lot to like about St. Barts, as an aviation geek, what I was most excited about was the airport.
St. Barts is known to have one of the most exciting airports in the world, and I was looking forward to experiencing this firsthand. In this post I wanted to talk a bit about the airport — first I’ll cover basics of the airport, and then I’ll talk about my experience plane spotting there, and more.
In this post:
The basics of St. Barts Airport (SBH)
Gustaf III Airport in St. Barts (SBH) is the island’s only airport, and it’s how most visitors arrive on the island. While there’s also ferry service to St. Barts from nearby islands, most visitors arrive by plane, given the frequency of air service, plus the easy connectivity to connecting flights.
What makes St. Barts Airport unique?
St. Barts is a small island that’s also very mountainous, and that presents some unique challenges for the airport. The airport is located in the village of St. Jean. There are a few things that make this airport such noteworthy:
- The runway is only 2,119 feet long; that’s definitely on the short side, but then again, nearby Saba Airport (SAB) has the world’s shortest commercial runway, at 1,312 feet
- What really makes the airport unique is that on one side of the runway is the water, and on the other side of the runway is a very steep hill; planes typically land in the direction of the water, meaning they have to descend very steeply on the final approach, in a way that you won’t otherwise often experience
- What makes this even more interesting for onlookers is that there’s a beach on one side of the runway, and one of the island’s main roads on the other side of the runway, so seeing planes landing and taking off is very much part of the island experience
What airlines fly to St. Barts?
St. Barts Airport has regularly scheduled service from propellor aircraft (jet aircraft can’t land here). The airport has service from Winair, St. Barth Commuter, Tradewind Aviation, and Air Antilles.
Winair is the biggest airline at St. Barts Airport, and the most common service is to St. Martin (SXM), as there are dozens of flights per day, and sometimes they leave just minutes apart. In addition to St. Martin, there’s also service to airports like Antigua (ANU), Pointe-à-Pitre (PTP), San Juan (SJU), and more.
Is St. Barts Airport dangerous?
St. Barts Airport is often ranked as one of the world’s most dangerous airports. Is there any truth to that, and should you be scared to fly there? I think most lists of dangerous airports are based on some questionable metrics, just like the lists of the world’s safest airlines. So let’s look at this a bit differently:
- Is landing at St. Barts Airport more challenging than landing at the average airport? Absolutely, but the pilots flying to the airport get special training for it, and fly there constantly
- At the end of the day, flights are only operated to St. Barts within operating limitations; visibility has to be good, and conditions otherwise have to be acceptable; otherwise planes wouldn’t fly there, and it’s also easy to divert back to St. Martin, which is just a 10-minute flight away
The last major, fatal crash at the airport was back in 2001, when Air Caraïbes flight 1501 crashed on approach. This was determined to be pilot error, as the captain created thrust asymmetry while on approach in a way that he shouldn’t have. There was also a strange accident at the airport a few months ago, but there were no fatalities, and the plane wasn’t even landing over the hill.
Anyway, my point is to say that there hasn’t been a major fatal accident at the airport for 20+ years, despite dozens of planes taking off and landing there every single day. I’d say that’s pretty safe!
The St. Barts Airport experience
With the above basics out of the way, let’s take a closer look at St. Barts Airport. What is it like to go plane spotting, what is it like taking off and landing, and what’s the terminal like?
Plane spotting at St. Barts Airport
Usually plane spotting is a niche activity that aviation geeks go out of their way to do, but no one else would consider doing. That’s not the case in St. Barts, where everyone seems to be into this stuff. Since the approach course is right over one of the island’s main roads, it’s totally normal to just pull your car over when a plane is approaching and take pictures or a video.
For example, below is the view of the airport from one of the island’s main roads, on the hill above the runway.
From there, you can even take an additional road down, so that you can be even closer to the runway.
Below is what the view is like from the bottom of that road.
The hill really blocks your view of any inbound aircraft, so I’d recommend using Flightradar24 so that you know when planes are inbound. Sometimes there are no flights for an hour, and other times there are five arrivals in 10 minutes.
Below are a couple of videos that I took from the hill, including of a Winair DHC-6-300 and a Tradewind Aviation Pilatus PC-12 landing at the airport.
While plane spotting from the hill is cool, plane spotting from the airport is even cooler, if you ask me (and the main part of the terminal is open to the public). Below is a video of two Winair DHC-6-300s landing at the airport. Yes, it was an especially windy day.
Taking off & landing at St. Barts Airport
We flew Winair to & from St. Martin, so what was that experience like? I’ll write about the flight in a separate installment, but it’s just 10 minutes in each direction. When it comes to landing at and taking off from St. Barts Airport, what was that like?
Honestly, the landing is pretty exciting. Everything feels totally normal until you come in over the hill. The plane drops so sharply that you get that sinking feeling in your stomach, and it’s sort of exhilarating. The thing to keep in mind is that while the runway is short, the aircraft can stop in basically no time. The DHC-6-300 is such a capable plane, and you go from landing speed to taxi speed in maybe a few seconds.
The takeoff at St. Barts Airport always takes place over the water, and is much less dramatic. It just feels like a standard high performance takeoff, and you’re off the ground in no time. Below is a takeoff video I took while departing the airport.
The St. Barts Airport terminal
Beyond the aviation geek aspect of the airport, St. Barts Airport is a pretty charming little airport in general.
The check-in area is fully open air.
Rather than going directly to the gates, you have the option to go up to the “lounge,” which is an area where all passengers can sit.
The area is indoors and is air conditioned, and it has several comfortable couches you can sit on, while enjoying views of the apron and runway.
The lounge area also has offices for several airlines, including Air France (since a lot of travelers connect to Air France flights).
There are shops and even a restaurant on this level.
Then when your flight is ready to depart, the departures area is on the ground level. There’s an immigration check there, but there aren’t any security checks, so you can show up as your flight starts boarding.
I can finally check St. Barts Airport off my aviation geek bucket list. The Caribbean airport is known for its unique approach, which is quite dramatic whether you’re viewing it from the ground or onboard a flight. While there’s a lot to like about St. Barts, the airport in and of itself is a reason to visit this island, if you have the chance.
Anyone else been to St. Barts Airport? If so, what was your experience like?