The story of Madeira Airport’s multiple runway extensions
Madeira Airport (also known as Funchal Airport and officially as Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport) is the only airport serving the Portuguese island of Madeira. It is located in a difficult area, surrounded by mountains and the sea, which makes both the approach in flight and the construction of the airport difficult. There have been two major runway extensions, however, as the airport’s use has increased – the most recent involving an impressive bridge-based extension.
The original short track
Madeira/Funchal Airport opened in 1964, with a single runway (23/05 as it remains today) with a length of 1,600 meters (5,249 ft). Tourism was growing on the island and the airport was seen as essential to supporting it.
Landing at the airport at that time was considered one of the most difficult in Europe. It’s still difficult today with changing weather and wind conditions, but with the short track, it was even more difficult.
The weather and location made it a difficult airport to land. Photo: Getty Images
The approach to Runway 05 in particular requires a steep turn due to the surrounding mountains and a short final approach. There is also no ILS available, so only visual landings (there is an ILS available for landings on runway 23 if conditions permit). The short track had sea cliffs at each end.
The trail ends with a drop above the cliffs. Photo: Getty Images
The first extension in 1986
The decision was made in the late 1970s to lengthen the track. This was prompted by the increase in tourism, and therefore air traffic, to the island. A longer runway would allow large aircraft to land. It would also be safer. In November 1977 there was a devastating crash of a Boeing 727 operating a TAP Air Portugal flight from Brussels and Lisbon to Madeira. The aircraft landed in poor weather (strong winds, rain and low visibility), performing two missed approaches before attempting a third final approach. The plane landed, but more than 600 meters along the runway. In wet conditions, it hydroplaned and the pilots were unable to stop the aircraft before the end of the runway. He overshot the track and fell over the cliffs onto the beach below. Of the 156 passengers and eight crew on board, 131 were killed.
Runway extension work began in 1982 and was completed in February 1986. This extended the single runway to 1,800 meters (5,906 ft).
The second expansion in 2002
The continued growth in tourism since the extended track opened in the 1980s meant that further extension was soon considered. This time it was much more difficult. All available land had been used, so the runway needed to be extended over the sea. Landfill from the shore was not possible and the engineers opted instead to build the extension on a platform.
This time the runway was extended to 2,781 meters (9,124 ft), with construction taking place from 2000 to 2002. This extension was achieved by building a bridge 57 meters above the water , supported by a structure of 180 pillars. This bridge, 180 meters wide and just over a kilometer long, has been sufficiently reinforced to carry the track. The impressive design won an “Outstanding Structure Award” in 2004 from the International Association for Bridge and Structural Engineering.
Runway and airport improvements in 2016
Madeira Airport underwent an extensive renovation and upgrade program in 2016. The runway was not extended as part of this, but it was further reinforced. The airport’s apron and taxiways have been redesigned, increasing the usable area of the airport by 1,500 square meters.
The other part of this upgrade focused on terminal and airport facilities. This was the first major expansion since the airport opened. The terminal has been expanded, with a new shopping area and larger passenger screening and waiting areas. The airport says that with the new facilities it can handle up to 1,400 passengers per hour, up from 720 passengers.
Did you land at Madeira airport? Do you remember the approach and the runway? Feel free to share your experiences in the comments.