The European St Maarten: Introducing Skiathos Airport

Whether it’s to take the perfect photograph, or merely to feel a plane’s raw power, many avgeeks love getting as close to aircraft as possible. St Maarten in the Caribbean is famous among both planespotters and the general public for its low approaches and powerful jet blast departures. However, did you know that a certain Greek island features similarly extreme spectacles? Let’s take a look at Skiathos Airport.

Skiathos Landing
The low approaches at Skiathos attract large crowds. Photo: Paul Lakin via Wikimedia Commons

Setting the scene – where is Skiathos?

Skiathos is a small Greek island situated in the northwest Aegean Sea. It forms part of a group of islands known as the Northern Sporades. Alongside Skiathos, the largest islands in this group are Alonnisos, Skopelos, and Skyros. These four are the only islands among the 24 that make up the Northern Sporades that are permanently inhabited.

The shortest distance to the Greek mainland is less than five km (three miles). Mainland Greece can be found just to the west of the island in the form of the Pelion peninsula, in the region of Magnesia. Along with neighboring Skopelos to the east, the island is known for having been a filming location for the 2008 musical romantic comedy film Mamma Mia.

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A Finnair Airbus 319 back tracking prior departs from
A Finnair Airbus A319 tracks back before turning around to depart Skiathos. Photo: Getty Images

The need for an airport, and its name

According to the 2011 census, the Northern Sporades have a collective population of 13,798 inhabitants. Of these, nearly half (6,610 inhabitants) reside in Skiathos. However, the island is a popular holiday destination among European tourists.

As such, Skiathos sees numbers swell significantly during the summer months. Some of these tourists might arrive by sea, on scheduled ferry services from mainland cities including Volos. However, most arrive by air, at the island’s Alexandros Papadiamantis Airport (JSI). This facility is named after one of the most influential Greek writers of his generation.

Thomas Cook Airbus A321 Skiathos
Arrivals at Skiathos approach the airport over the city’s harbor. Photo: Flo Weiss via Wikimedia Commons

Papadiamantis is also one of Skiathos’s most notable residents, and the island features extensively in his work. He died of pneumonia aged 59 in 1911, but his legacy has lived on in the form of various translations of his work. Another way that his legacy continues to have a presence in Skiathos is the fact that the island’s airport bears his name.

How the airport came to be

Skiathos Airport opened in 1972. It is situated close to the island’s most significant center of population, the eponymous city of Skiathos. This settlement had a population of 4,883 at the time of the 2011 census, representing nearly 75% of the island’s inhabitants.

While the need for an airport to support the tourism industry was clear, building it was a challenge. Not only is Skiathos a small island, but its terrain is rather rugged. This meant that there were few options for pieces of land large and flat enough to build the airport.

Skiathos Runway
Skiathos’s runway is situated virtually at sea level, being located on reclaimed land. Photo: Kullez via Flickr

As such, its architects had to come up with a novel solution. They eventually elected to reclaim a strip of land from the sea between Skiathos and the smaller, neighboring island of Lazareta. This effectively joined the two to create a larger island. However, crucially, it also provided a large and flat enough area for the airport to be built upon.

Limited year-round service

Of course, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic meant that Skiathos experienced a much quieter summer than usual last year. Indeed, the airport reported having processed just 88,916 passengers in 2020. This represents just 20% of 2019’s figure of 446,219 passengers.

The airport had previously reported continuous growth year-on-year since 2010, when it processed 230,489 passengers. Between then and 2019, it had nearly doubled this number before COVID-19 brought the airline industry to an almost complete halt.

Olympic Air Dash 8 Skiathos
Regional carrier Olympic Air is one of just two airlines to operate year-round scheduled flights to Skiathos. Photo: Flo Weiss via Wikimedia Commons

In terms of year-round services, Skiathos sees minimal traffic. The only destination served by the airport all year is the Greek capital of Athens. According to RadarBox.com, Olympic Air and Sky Express operate these flights with ATR 42/72 and de Havilland Dash 8 turboprops.

Much busier in the summer

However, before the pandemic, the airport would generally have much more on its plate during the summer months. A wide range of low-cost, leisure, and even full-service airlines operate scheduled and charter flights from dozens of European destinations to the Greek island.

The UK is one of the airport’s busiest markets. Carriers such as British Airways Cityflyer, Jet2, and TUI serve Skiathos from several airports across England and Scotland. In years gone by, Monarch (with whom I flew to the island in 2009) and Thomas Cook also had a presence.

TUI Boeing 757 Skiathos Getty
TUI’s Boeing 757s are among the largest aircraft that can land at Skiathos. Photo: Getty Images

Other countries with a presence at Skiathos include Austria, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Romania, and Switzerland. The Nordic countries are also well served, with Finnair directly linking Skiathos with Helsinki. Meanwhile, Danes, Norwegians, and Swedes have a choice of both SAS and charter carrier Sunclass Airlines for their journeys to the island.

A planespotter’s paradise

Due to the limited nature of where the airport could be built, Skiathos Airport had to compromise on a relatively short landing strip. Indeed, its runway 01/19 measures just 1,628 meters long (5,341 feet). This limits the size of aircraft that can use the airport.

SAS Boeing 737 Skiathos
An SAS Boeing 737 prepares to depart Skiathos. Greek and English signage at the end of the runway warns spectators of the dangers of jet blast. Photo: Hugh via Flickr

However, for planespotters, this factor increases the spectacle of the aircraft that can arrive and depart. This is because, on landing, planes make a very low approach into Skiathos to touch down near the end of the runway. This mitigates against its minimal length, while allowing avgeeks to get close photos while feeling the power of the just aircraft above them.

This phenomenon is amplified when it comes to departing aircraft, which often have to make powerful takeoffs from Skiathos. This ensures that they safely get into the air before reaching the end of the runway. There is minimal clearance between the runway and the road and beach at the end of it, meaning that spotters are subjected to a strong jet blast.

The European St Maarten

These phenomena have seen Skiathos become known as the ‘European St Maarten.’ This name refers to Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM) in the Caribbean. St Maarten is popular among avgeeks for similar reasons. It even used to see service from Boeing 747s operated by Air France and KLM (reflecting the island’s half French, half Dutch makeup).

Air France Boeing 747-200M on very low final-approach over Maho Beach with hotels behind
747s landing at St Maarten made for one of the most iconic views in aviation. Photo: Getty Images

However, while being up close to a powerful jetliner may be an awe-inspiring experience, the risks of jet blast can be tragic and deadly. Indeed, according to the BBC, a woman was fatally injured by the force of a departing aircraft’s jet blast in St Maarten in 2017.

As for Skiathos, it will be hoping for some sort of a return to normality in terms of passenger numbers this summer. It is among the most iconic planespotting locations in Europe, and avgeeks both local to the airport and those who come from afar to experience it will be crossing their fingers for a vaccine rollout allowing leisure travel in the coming months.

What do you make of Skiathos Airport? Have you ever flown into or out of the ‘European St Maarten’? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!

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