Airfield vs. Airport: What Are the Differences?

As pilots from around the world start to explore their new locations to land, there comes the discussion of airfield vs. airport. Why are they considered two different things, when they are both places for aircraft to land at and take-off from?

Let’s break down the differences between the two, giving us the knowledge to decide which we would want to go to and why.

Airfield vs. Airport
Airports are larger and have well-developed facilities for passengers and cargo.

What Is an Airfield?

When you think of a runway, you tend to think of the name “airport”. As it turns out, not all runways are considered to be an airport.

An airfield, by definition, is a space set aside specifically for aircraft to take off and land. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the space is a paved runway. It is possible for the space provided to be a grass, gravel, or dirt strip.

Who Would Need an Airfield?

Small communities with little to no access through roads will often find it difficult to come up with the resources to pave a runway. As a result, a space will be created simply by clearing trees and leveling the terrain to create an appropriate place to land.

Aircraft like the DHC-2 Beaver and the Piper Cub are well known for their strength in the backcountry and are often relied on for delivering supplies and providing methods of transportation. These aircraft thrive on small strips and water landings, so they make great use of airfields.

Much smaller aircraft can land in rougher conditions with no issues. Even some larger aircraft, such as the Boeing 737, have circumstances where they must land on a dirt or gravel strip. This is often the case up north, where small communities have a large landing space so that bigger aircraft can come to more remote areas.

What Is an Airport?

With so many airfields available in different locations and for different aircraft, why would we need airports? While airfields can be extremely convenient for smaller aircraft and remote locations, an airport provides a level of service that some aircraft and passengers require.

An airport is a location of mostly paved runways that provide a space for aircraft to take off and land, but also provide access for passengers. When thinking of an airport you might imagine a large international airport with multiple runways and terminal buildings, and you are right – that is often the case.

Why Would We Need an Airport?

Airports are ideal for commercial operations, such as the transport of passengers or cargo. Because of their sometimes multiple long runways and terminal buildings, they are perfect for very large aircraft that require a lot of space and smooth surfaces.

Airports are most common in densely populated cities that have a lot of traffic and travelers. Because of their infrastructure airports provide an easy process for travelers to arrive at the new location and have all their needs met in one location.

Airport Terminal
Airport terminal.

Facilities You Can Find at an Airfield

There are some useful items you can find at an airfield that will be of use to a pilot on their journey. Although it is important to check in advance what will be available to you on your arrival at an airfield, here are a few things to expect.

More often than not there are no customs available at an airfield. While an airfield might be closer to your destination than an airport, flying in from a different country means that you must clear customs. Sometimes you might need to fly to a larger airport and clear customs before proceeding to a smaller airfield.

Fuel is not always a guarantee at an airfield. Some airfields have no fuel at all, while others have a self-serve station. Some airfields only allow fueling during certain hours, and arriving after hours means there will be a call-out fee to have someone come and unlock the fuel. Be sure that the airfield provides the type of fuel you require, as some do not provide a grade of fuel higher than 100LL.

Washrooms can be considered a luxury when in a remote location, and airfields are no exception. Be sure to check for a washroom before you arrive at your destination, or you might be stuck going into the bushes and encountering some local wildlife.

Facilities You Can Find at an Airport

It is almost guaranteed that an airport will have many more facilities than a remote airfield. Because airports are designed for the public, you will be more easily able to find what you are looking for.

Security and customs are required at international airports. Some smaller airports might also have their own customs officer, and others might even have an officer on call. This increases safety and ensures that all entries within the country are legal and secure.

While you might be lucky to find snacks at an airfield, airports both large and small usually have food and washrooms available. Airline lounges, snacks, food courts, and food stands are extremely common at international airports to allow travelers the chance to purchase some items before or after going through customs.

Fuel is a must at airports. Whether it be self-serve or provided by a ground crew, pilots can find a range of fuel from 100LL to Jet A. Although there can be airport fees or landing fees, the guarantee of fuel can be worth the extra cost.

Because of the constant travel pilots are experiencing during their duty day, crew rooms are a space that is provided to the aircraft crew. A crew room provides a quiet space out of the way from passengers and loud noises to give the crew a break and maybe have a quick rest.

Although it’s becoming more uncommon, many airports still have a crew car available to the crew that is landing. The crew car is free to use by crew members and allows them to go into town or a local shop to take a break, grab some food or have a quick tour of the sights.

Airport Shop
Airport shop.

Summary

At the end of the day, an airfield and an airport are both perfect places to land depending on your needs. Whether it be a trip for a $100 hamburger or carrying 300 passengers across the pond, a pilot needs to ensure they have chosen the right destination to land before they’ve left the ground.

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