Ever wondered what the underside of a modern jetliner looks like up close and personal? I visited the Greek island of Skiathos, sometimes nicknamed the St Maarten of Europe, in 2014, to find the answer and more from this small but very interesting airport. As with all in this series this was originally published in a magazine and all stats and facts were correct at that time of writing although one or two bits have been updated.
Skiathos, one of only four inhabited, out of a total of eleven, Sporades Islands in Greece around 83 miles / 133 kilometres from the mainland capital Athens is perhaps one of the most interesting in the region given it's rather spectacular approach and landing. However there is more to this airport than just the thrill of being blown over by the thrust from departing jetliners.
Opened in 1971 Skiathos Airport Alexandros Papadiamantis (JSI/LGSK) was built to serve the mainland capital of Athens, providing a much needed link for the Islands inhabitants. Constructed by reclaiming land from the sea between Skiathos and the former leper colony of neighbouring Lazareta. It's 800 metre runway saw the likes of Olympic Shorts 360 and Skyvan, Dornier 228 and the more exotic NAMC YS11 linking first Athens and then later Thessaloniki with, at the peak, five and two rotations per day respectively. However the very first aircraft to land was a DC3 of the Greek CAA which was testing and commissioning the NDB used for approaches at the airport.
The first official flight was by an Olympic Shorts Skyvan SX-BBO fittingly named Isle of Skiathos. It was by many accounts an interesting affair attended by dignitaries and media as you might expect, but lacking the necessary restrictions we see nowadays as people were literally all over the apron and even the active runway!
For the first year of operations passengers were processed through a temporary building until the first terminal was built in 1972. The new millennium brought a new 7000 sq foot terminal constructed to increase passenger throughput however as will be seen later it is not terminal capacity that was the limiting factor here.
The airport currently provides work for 150 locals who efficiently process the 250,000 passengers that pass through its doors each year. Most of these passengers stay on the island providing welcome revenue for the local economy with a small percentage of passengers going to the neighbouring islands of Skopelos and Alonissos.
The runways current length of 1628 metres / 5,341 feet by 30 metres / 98 feet wide is officially classed as short and narrow. It is this and the fact that the apron can officially only hold two aircraft at any one time that provides the greatest operational challenges for the airport operator.
George Iliopoulos, the Airport Authority Officer in charge of both Operations and PR and reporting directly to the Airport Manager, explained to me just how these challenges materialise: "The apron is by far the biggest challenge as it currently limits the airport to two arrivals and two departures per hour." He goes on to say that is not necessarily an issue if everything's works to plan which with good coordination between airport ops, the three ground handling agents and ATC, it generally does.
However not everything can be controlled so if an aircraft has an issue whilst on the ground it can have serious delays down the line, particularly if it is on a Friday which is the busiest day of the week. Something I can personally attest to having waited on the ground at Manchester for 45 minutes due to there being no expected parking stand available at the standard time of arrival and later being further exacerbated as this flight needed to go into the hold for a further 15 minutes as the expected departure had to offload two passengers bags due to them not showing up at the gate.
The runway length is another challenge although one of a much different nature. It requires pilots to be specially rated to operate into here given the need to get aircraft from the approach onto a very positive and firm landing close to the perimeter wall followed by large amounts of reverse thrust and brakes to ensure a stop within the runway confines, a runway which is also surrounded by hills on both sides. Definitely something that can be described as spectacular both to view and experience! Aircraft then backtrack the runway to access the apron.
The runway has one further trick up its sleeve as again due to length a fully loaded aircraft of the type operating here, other than the 757, cannot often make it back to Northern Europe without a technical stop in either Kavala (LGKV/KVA) or Thessaloniki (LGTS/SKG) both in Northern Greece, to take on enough fuel to make it back home.
It is possible to fly without this stop but requires certain conditions. Either a lightly loaded aircraft or during operations at cooler times where engines perform a little better, the decision can be last minute with the Captain making the final decision. In fact Thomson at the time were operating a 737 to Luton as a direct service but, scheduled the flight in the early morning to make this possible, however with just two flights per hour this is clearly not available to everyone.
The airport can currently handle aircraft up to the size of a 757-200 with the most common sight being varying versions of A320 and B737 families. However on 30 October 2011 the airport did manage to accommodate an Air Italy B767. The regular B757 had gone tech earlier in the day due to a bird strike and the airlines preferred option was to substitute a company 767 on the route. Many hours of planning and calculations later the aircraft found itself on the ground completely filling the apron but also filling those staff members involved with pride. Something I was told is still thought of fondly now.
Arrivals here are via VOR/NDB approach following hand over from Athens control. Aircraft first overfly the island giving passengers on the right hand side a great view. They then turn downwind over the Skopelos VOR and when 10 DME from this point turn back onto finals to make the approach to runway 02/20, with 02 being the most common and certainly the most interesting!
Liaison is again required with Athens for departures where the aircraft is provided with a slot and once airborne on the SID, or quite commonly a visual departure to intersect the 336 radial from Skopelos ( off runway 02 ), aircrew are then expected to contact Athens control within five minutes.
An interesting point about ATC here is that there are no directly employed Controllers, there is in essence a rota with ATCO's coming for a couple of months or so from Mytilene at Lesbos in the summer and other Greek airports in the winter.
ATCO's also have one non standard procedure with each movement as traffic lights need switching on to stop traffic on the road that runs round the 02 threshold.
As part of the airports master plan, more of which later, the runway is to be extended by 110 metres at the northern end which along with other runway width modifications will assist with safety and to provide more aircraft with the opportunity to fly directly home, saving the airlines, and hopefully the passengers, both money and time. There have been investigations into a further extension to allow larger aircraft in but this would involve the destruction of Xanemos beach with the obvious political and environmental implications. Any such decision would be made in conjunction with the inhabitants of the island for whom the airport was originally constructed.
As mentioned earlier the limiting factor at the airport was the apron, at the time of my visit there were only 2 official parking stands but interestingly three departure gates. The reason for this being that in the right circumstances the ramp taxiway can hold a third aircraft assuming it is due to leave before the one on stand two behind! The airport was also implementing its master plan which has now created a new North apron containing five airliner stands and the facility for up to two further long stay Biz Jet or GA aircraft, something which was unavailable then and also the reason for there being no based aircraft at all. However there is also room for a small number of Cessna 172 size aircraft at the North side of the existing apron.
The new apron has direct access to the runway although aircraft will still need to backtrack when landing as there is no parallel taxiway and no plans nor land for such a construction.
To keep up with the expected increase in traffic the plan calls for an initial refurbishment of the new terminal and in the fullness of time an extension to it and the refurbishment and subsequent re opening of the old seventies vintage terminal.
The airport, like many in Greece, is working towards privatisation so any final decisions are likely to be made after any such move to the private sector is complete.
Skiathos still gets its fair share of biz jet traffic with on average 2-3 per day, most commonly seen is the Cessna Citation but anything up to the Gulfstream 5 is not uncommon. In the past Middle East Government officials have provided more interesting movements with a Saudi Govt B737 and Qatar Airways A320 both making visits.
Current peak of traffic is on a Friday when the airport handles its maximum amount of movements carrying passenger numbers which is interestingly more than the Islands total population of about 5000.
Domestic services are limited here with only about 1% of total passengers traveling domestically. Charter flights are in the majority, almost exclusively from foreign carriers of which the UK dominates with approximately 80% of passengers originating from there. It is the normal suspects providing these services. Scandinavian countries provide the next largest passenger numbers with Italy close behind. In addition to a smattering of the major European scheduled and charter carriers, it does have some interesting traffic with the likes of Blue Panarama / Blu Express,
Enter Air with 737s, Volotea with A319s and the growing rarity that is the Boeing 717
Unfortunately with the demise of VIM Aviation, their A319 that used to arrive on a Sunday is no longer the star of the show.
The main attractions are now probably TAROM with its A318 and Aviolet with B737’s.
There is a small amount of domestic traffic with Sky Express J41 and Olympic to Athens using A320 or DHC8-400 This latter flight generally in the dark unfortunately as they are early morning and late evening.
Although never likely to rival St Maarten, Skiathos does have hot sun, the beautiful clear Aegean Sea, great food and a truly up close and personal airliner experience.
The author would like to thank George Iliopoulos and his team for their invaluable assistance during the authors visit.
Spotting at Skiathos.
The most obvious and truly spectacular place to view aircraft here is from the harbour and car park area at the southern end of the runway which takes the majority of the airports movements. It is quite an experience to be that close to a landing airliner, sometimes too close for comfort.
If you look carefully at the shot of the SAS 737 you will see a person actually feeling the need to duck as the aircraft goes over him!
Departing aircraft are of course easily viewed and photographed from here.
Additionally there is the Amaretto snack bar cafe which offers not only shade and refreshments but along with 'I survived the Skiathos jet blast' key rings a large TV screen showing arrivals from FR24 and often other spotters with radios should you not have your own!
Spectacular as this area is there are more areas to view take photos, in fact due to aircraft settling in to the approach quite early they float past the new sea port side on making it entirely possible to sit in the many bars, cafés and restaurants and take in the action. Bring along any decent telephoto lens and from late afternoon due to sun position shots are easy to get.
For the energetic amongst you interesting shots can be had from the hills overlooking the port and airport with the benefit of the walk being not only the spectacular backdrops but also being on the better side of the runway regarding sun position.
Inside the airport and upstairs where it signposts a restaurant ( no longer there) and airport offices you can see out onto the apron through glass, again into sun for the most part but a good view nonetheless.
If landings are from the North onto runway 20 then head for Xanemos beach where you can sit relax and even swim in the warm Aegean whilst watching landings. There are raised areas at both ends of the beach to assist with photographs.