Flying is a thrill, but sometimes just watching the planes can be equally fun.
Aviation lovers will tell you that there’s nothing as exhilarating as the sound of engines revving up and the faint smell of jet fuel. For decades, many airports featured outdoor viewing decks so that anyone could get a sense of the action—even if they were not taking to the skies.
Unfortunately, security concerns have shuttered many of these spaces at airports worldwide—but some airports and airlines are getting creative. A growing number of viewing decks are returning to life with newly incorporated security measures (fences or glass barriers) that still appease those who want to get close to the operation.
Here are a few of our favorite viewing decks.
San Francisco is making major changes to its airport, including a new control tower. At the site of the old tower, the airport will build a glassed-in public observation deck, from which even visitors without tickets will be able to watch the action. The project is already underway, but no formal completion date has been announced.
BWI, MSP, and YVR
Baltimore’s public viewing area of the tarmac is located before security check, while Minneapolis/St. Paul and Vancouver have viewing areas for travelers past security.
One of the best U.S. airports for plane spotting is Honolulu International Airport. With the wind blowing through their hair, travelers can watch planes come and go as they walk through the open-air terminal buildings. It’s not uncommon for pilots to wave at travelers as they stand at the railing (that’s how close you are!).
DFW and RDU
Dallas/Fort Worth may not have a viewing area inside the airport itself, but there is a large, open-air pavilion on the outskirts of the tarmac area that gives people a perfect view of landing planes. An audio broadcast of control tower instructions adds to the appeal. Raleigh/Durham has a similar viewing pavilion near the cargo area, but the traffic isn’t as varied.
If you head to In and Out Burger near the Los Angeles airport, you will be surrounded by photographers munching on burgers as they snap photos of the constant flow of traffic passing directly overhead. Ask one of them about the upcoming incomings—someone is bound to have a schedule of the arrivals. So many Airbus A380s and Boeing 747s fly in low above the fast food restaurant that it’s a great and inexpensive afternoon of entertainment for the kids (or the young at heart).
Inside the terminal, Star Alliance travelers should make a beeline for the business class lounge in the Tom Bradley International Terminal. The outdoor deck features fire pits and a water fountain in addition to tarmac views.
Beyond the United States, Maho Beach on the island of St. Maarten is somewhat of a pilgrimage destination for aviation geeks (much like LAX’s In and Out Burger). The runway abuts Maho Beach, and the small stretch of sand gets packed with holidaymakers who can seemingly touch the planes as they make their final approach to the airport. In some cases, you can see the faces of people in the windows. Who needs a formal observation deck when you can suntan with a beer on the beach?
NRT, HND, NGO
Both Tokyo Narita and Tokyo Haneda airports have free, public outdoor decks, and farther south, the main international airport for Nagoya and Osaka has similar facilities.
Helsinki has the Scenic Terrace in Terminal Two that is free to all travelers and open when it is warm enough. Amsterdam’s Panorama Terrace is popular with plane spotting locals who visit the airport to shop and dine at the complex’s huge shopping mall.
German airports are especially fond of outdoor viewing facilities, and many airports offer space to watch the planes. Most require a modest fee, but the entertainment is worth it. Airports include Berlin Tegel, Dresden, Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Hamburg, Leipzig/Halle, Munich, and Nuremberg.
The Swiss can boast observation decks in two of the concourse buildings at Zurich. Also, the new Swiss International business and first class lounges in Concourse E have outdoor viewing areas where travelers can sip drinks while watching planes lift off from the runway just in front. The airline even plans to offer fondue on the deck during the summer months.
Delta’s famous Sky Deck is located at both Atlanta and New York JFK airports. The outdoor deck is accessible for travelers who have access to the SkyClub lounge. It’s free for top-level SkyTeam elites flying internationally or those traveling in a premium cabin, but you can also buy a day pass or enter with certain credit cards. Delta was the first airline to launch such a concept, and it has become wildly popular with fliers.
Happy plane spotting!