Whether built at the water's edge out of design or necessity – the lack of available land elsewhere – there is simply no getting away from the fact that 'airports by the beach' come with a unique set of advantages and disadvantages.
On the plus side, building near to a beach or the sea can give you lots of the things you need for a successful airport – flat land, low altitude runways and space to expand.
But there are also particular operational and environmental challenges that arise from putting your runways cheek by jowl with tourists, sea birds, sand and the water itself.
So how do airports around the world adapt to a maritime environment? Here, some of the most successful airports operating right next to beaches and to the sea, share their secrets with Airport World.
Male International Airport
The Maldives gateway was built on the island of Hulhule in the pristine Indian Ocean archipelago. Famously, the first asphalt runway at the airport was constructed as part of a competition between members of the public from the four districts of the capital Male in the mid-1960s. Now the airport is the most important node in the Maldives' tourist industry.
Ibrahim Khalid, head of standards and safety at Maldives Airports, says: "The biggest geographical hindrance to the airport is a lack of sufficient land space for the proper layout of the airport and associated facilities.
"Male International Airport is equipped with a single runway and an apron that is not adequately separated from the runway. There are no parallel taxi-lanes to facilitate the ground movement of aircraft. These constraints cause significant delays as most landing aircraft need to backtrack."
Khalid adds: "A lack of sufficient apron space and aerobridges means that very often wide body aircraft need to be towed out on to the runway before engines can be started."
And what about the famously low-lying coral islands of the Maldives? Khalid acknowledges that the biggest environmental concern for the airport is "global warming".
"The effects of the tidal waves, which the Indian Ocean experienced in 1987, first brought to light the vulnerability of our airport to such events," admits Khalid. "Gushing seawater from these tidal waters flooded parts of our only runway."
And Khalid concedes that Male–Ibrahim Nasir International Airport – to give the gateway its full name – got off lightly compared to others during the tragic Boxing Day tsunami of 2004.
He explains: "Compared with some other parts of the country and the world, the damage caused to the airport during the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami was less severe. Even so, a significant part of the runway was flooded and the VOR/DME was totally destroyed, causing extensive delays."
San Francisco International Airport
The US gateway is a rather larger airport located right up against San Francisco Bay.
John Bergener, head of planning & environmental affairs at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), took time out to tell Airport World about the airport's operations.
"SFO is surrounded on three sides by the waters of the San Francisco Bay. The majority of the airport's landmass is built up on compacted landfill material. We face the ongoing challenge of protection from rising water and wave action, which is overcome through the use of reinforced concrete seawalls.
"We must consider environmental impacts: tidal marsh habitat and migratory birds. Plus, essential fish habitats in the Bay's waters."
And Bergener openly admits that the airport's waterfront location has worked against it over the years by hampering past expansion plans.
He explains: "It had been proposed to expand SFO's runways further into the San Francisco Bay, widening the space between runways, and improving capacity during poor weather and foggy conditions.
"This proposal met with political and environmental opposition. Since then, the airport has been working with other airports in the region to more evenly distribute traffic and reduce delays."
Seychelles International Airport
Like the Maldives, the Seychelles also faces challenges associated with being isolated, very low-lying, and very near the waves.
Patrick Hoareau, general manager at Mahé Island located gateway, says: "The major challenge of our location are seabirds. There is a constant threat of bird strikes, so we maintain a round the clock bird surveillance and control programme."
Another problem is sea water. "All airports near the sea are seriously affected by salinity, which increases maintenance cost and reduces the life span of some equipment," explains Hoareu. "Likewise, aircraft operators need to wash their planes extensively."
And finally, it seems, people can be a problem, too. "The beach and the sea near the airport is an attraction to the public who come to relax and even fish. Warning signs are posted and security needs to be on the alert."
The lack of space to expand, like in the Maldives, is also a big issue. "We do have space constraints, and this has prevented us from constructing a parallel taxiway. The runway is therefore used as taxiway by aircraft. This naturally impacts negatively to some extent on performance and operation," says Hoareau.
Wellington International Airport
Living in harmony with the local wildlife appears to be the biggest operational challenge for the New Zealand gateway, whose runway juts out towards the sea – at both ends.
"The airport has Wellington Harbour to the north and Cook Strait to the south – so a sea environment at both thresholds. There's a variety of bird life in the local area. To manage the risk, we have a very proactive and successful wildlife management programme in place to mitigate the risk to aircraft operations," reveals chief operating officer, John Howarth.
"As a result, we have the lowest bird strike rate of any New Zealand airport. This has predominately been achieved by the management of the black-backed gull population."
Howarth adds: "The airport also has a marine emergency response squad: two boats ready to go 24/7."
What about those runways – do they pose problems and is expansion hampered? "The airport's location on an isthmus with sea at both runway ends means that any runway extension will involve extensive reclamation.
"The relatively short runway provides take off weight limitations for the A320 and B737-800 that operate the international services to Australia – which can lead to payload restrictions."
In the middle of the wild North Atlantic, the Faroe Islands relies on its airport at Vágar as a lifeline to the outside world and its remote location and popularity with seabirds ensures that it faces a number of wildlife and weather related challenges.
"Bird control is one issue that we attend to very cautiously there are lots of seabirds," says Regin Jakobsen, chief financial officer at Vágar Airport.
"Then, there is the weather! The Faroe Islands is an archipelago consisting of 18 small islands surrounded by the lukewarm current from the Mexican Gulf – and we have a very moist climate.
"During the summer we can have several days running with low visibility caused by fog. Even though the Faroes are not known for having much snow, the winter season can be a challenge as when we have snow, it is often relatively wet, and therefore heavy and difficult to remove.
"The winter can also be very windy, which, under some conditions, can cause severe turbulence. Turbulence does lead to cancellations from time to time."
Vágar's short-take off and landing (STOL) runway is currently being lengthened from 1,250 to 1,799 metres – even nearer to the water's edge.
Says Jakobsen: "The airport expansion programme will be finished by the end of 2013."
Although many airports successfully operate near a beach, there's only one in the world where the beach itself is a fully certified runway – Barra in Scotland.
Indeed Barra, an island off the west coast of Scotland, is a unique place. Every day, a portion of the local beach is closed for the arrival and subsequent departure of the Twin Otter service to Glasgow.
Highlands and Islands Airports operate the facility, which includes a tiny terminal on the foreshore. And incredibly, this arrangement has been going since the 1930s.
"We face various challenges. The most obvious is tide. The scheduling of our daily flights are based on whether there is beach available for the aircraft to land," says Barra's station manager, Michael Galbraith.
"Loganair are passed tidal times and heights for each forthcoming year, so as they can timetable their flights for both winter and summer operations.
"Runway incursions are a daily concern too. Firstly, just outside of the runway marker posts some locals harvest cockles when the tide is out. Also, visitors in the summer months wander onto the beach. We have various warning signs, windsocks and a strobe light on top of the tower to indicate aircraft activity."
Galbraith adds: "As the beach is a constant changing environment the surface conditions vary: it can get wet from the receding tide, blooms of algae cause rough ridges, and sandbars develop.
"Another big headache for us is the saltwater spray from the sea. This causes major corrosion on our operational vehicles. The aircraft also has to undergo a good scrub once it returns back to its Glasgow base."
And what other problems does Galbraith face? "The weather here can be a bit challenging, with strong winds and driving rain. The Twin Otter's maximum operating speeds is 50 knots. Landing is generally okay, as it just points into wind. Blowing sand is a headache. The crew needs to watch open doors and windows, as the plane will be inundated with sand if you don't. Even the airport itself can be."
Facing different operational challenges is, of course, all in a day's work for the world's airports, with many of the problems faced stemming from the weather, security issues and even politics.
However, next time you are feeling sorry yourself on a snowy day, spare a thought for tiny Barra, which in addition to everything else, on a daily basis has to worry about the prospect of people and dogs walking across its runway and even the prospect that it might not be there due to high tides!
Airport World 2011 Issue 4