What Is A Tabletop Runway?

Airports that are in mountainous regions sometimes have tabletop runways. These runways are engineering marvels, dangerous, and sometimes lead to tragedy. What are tabletop runways, and which well-known airports have them?

Tabletop airport
An Air India Express jet landing at Calicut International Airport. Dhruvarahjs via Wikimedia

What is a tabletop runway?

The best way to describe what a tabletop runway is to use the analogy in the name – tabletop. Imagine landing a plane on a table. At both ends of the runway, there is a drop that is sometimes hundreds of feet.

They are constructed by chopping off the top of a peak and forming it into a plateau, or carving out the side of a mountain.  They are impressive feats of engineering and enable longer runways for long-range jet aircraft (otherwise they could only take small regional aircraft).

Not all tabletop runways are on mountains, with some islands building them to have airstrips long enough for international aircraft.

table top
Saba’s Juancho E. Yrausquin Airport is a tabletop runway, although with the sea instead of a valley at the end. Photo: Fentener van Vlissingen via Wikimedia

Some airports might have such short runways that they build them in an upward slope. This allows gravity to assist the aircraft coming to a stop, although they do not commonly accommodate large aircraft.

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Why are these runways dangerous?

The one flaw with this runway design is that they have dangerous starts and ends. There is little room for error, and pilots need excellent training to land on them.

Plus, they can be hazardous, no matter the weather or time of day. Due to the way the runways line up with the horizon and edge of the mountain, it creates an optical illusion that hides the drop. Pilots who have no experience at an airport might misjudge the remaining length of the runway and accidentally overshoot.

tabletop airport runway
Lukla Airport has an extreme tabletop runway. Photo: Reinhard Kraasch via Wikimedia

Aircraft coming to land at these runways need to be extra careful and ensure that they hit the exact mark to land (not too early and especially not too late).

An unfortunate example is a recent crash at Kozhikode in Kerala involving an Air India Express-Boeing 737-800 aircraft. It overshot Kozhikode airport’s runway when it was coming into land and fell 35 feet down a slope at the end. The crash split the plane into two and killed the crew in the cockpit.

Kozhikode Airport Map
Kozhikode airport is a tabletop runway, which has steep valleys on all sides of the runway. Photo: Google Earth/Maxar Technologies

What are some famous tabletop runways?

Apart from Kozhikode, India, what other airports around the world have tabletop runways?

Naturally, countries that are near the world’s biggest mountain range have a slew of tabletop runways, such as Calicut International Airport, Kannur International Airport, Mangalore International Airport, and Lengpui Airport in India.

Nearby Nepal also has a few tabletop runways, such as Manmaya Rai Airport, Karnali Pradesh Talcha Airport, Tenzing–Hillary Airport, Kathmandu’s Bagmati Pradesh Tribhuvan International Airport and Tumlingtar Airport.

The terrifying Talcha Airport. Photo: Anuppanthi via Wikimedia

As mentioned above, some tabletop mountains are next to the ocean and not mountains, such as Saba’s international airport, the famous Saint Helena Airport, and the little known Vágar Airport in the Faeroe Islands.

The United States also has three tabletop runways. Catalina Airport in Avalon, California, Sedona Airport in Arizona, and Charleston’s Yeager Airport in West Virginia.

tabletop mountain
Sedona’s dramatic airport as seen from the air. Photo: Exfordy via Wikimedia

Have you flown into any of these airports? Let us know in the comments.