Ask any self-described aviation geek (or “avgeek”) what their favourite pastime is and you will receive the near unanimous answer of, ‘plane spotting’. Many avid spotters live near an airport, and know the airlines’ timetables by heart, but a growing number of travellers are carving out time pre-flight and post-flight to observe, photograph and log various types of aircraft.
Around the globe various locations (such as beaches, airports, and hotels) have become popular with these enthusiastic individuals. A stand-out location for both its beauty and spotting opportunities is Princess Juliana International Airport (PJIA) in St. Maarten. PJIA affords its visitors the breathtaking up close and personal views of airliners whilst beach sitting. That’s right; you can don a swimsuit, grab the camera and log tail numbers by the sea. Matt Molnar, co-founder of NYCAviation.com, enthuses, “St. Maarten’s Maho Beach is just gorgeous -tropical beach and big planes floating just a few feet above your head.”
Where might a newbie plane spotter find some of the best watching stateside? Phil Derner, co-founder of NYCAviation.com – a site and forum dedicated to perpetuating the love of plane spotting – says, “I think the best spotting in the US, from my experience is both (New York) JFK and (Los Angeles) LAX. Both have locations where large groups of spotters can go to and spot worry-free for a full afternoon with a large variety of international aircraft that not too many cities in the US receive. They are also “hubs” of spotting in the sense that they attract a large group of enthusiasts for you to enjoy your hobby with.”
A number of airports worldwide offer observation decks or parking areas for spotters to congregate. Airports in Texas, for instance, have developed a reputation as having a model approach to plane spotter treatment. JL Johnson, a spotting enthusiast, explains, “For a geographic area of accommodating airports I think those in Texas take the cake. DAL (Dallas Love Field) and DFW (Dallas/Fort Worth) each have approved areas -for example, Bachman Lake Park and the Founder’s Plaza, respectively. Then we have Houston Hobby and Houston George Bush Intercontinental, which have a number of actual gravel parks set up specifically for watching planes, dubbed ‘Aircraft Viewing Areas’. While I have no personal experience at SAT (San Antonio) or AUS (Austin-Bergstrom International), they have great reputations as well.”
Jason Zielinski, public information specialist senior at AUS, echoes Johnson’s point, saying: “We have a family viewing area where plane spotters can go to view planes on our east runway. The ‘Family Viewing Area’ is located near the east runway at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. Nearly one acre has been set aside to provide a vantage point for watching aircraft land and take off on the airport’s 9,000ft east runway. This viewing spot offers a paved parking area and picnic tables.”
Airlines and aircraft manufacturers can play a part in this community by identifying key locations for spotting and considering these airports as prime spots for test flights, new aircraft launches, and other similarly themed events. Rewarding spotters with first glimpses or behind the scenes access lends itself to breeding loyalty and enthusiasm for the brands and aircraft models.
Derner earnestly supports airlines taking a more active and greater role in spotting. “Airlines can enhance plane spotting by adding even more interesting paint schemes, and maybe having more events that are open to the public to let people get a close look at aviation. This would not only be fun for us enthusiasts, but great PR for the general public.
“Everyone is fascinated with aviation, and it generates so much interest and emotion from people as a result, that such events would help soothe people’s fear of flying and increase their excitement for taking to the skies.”
Plane spotting is also a great hobby for kids. It is “a free and easy way to enjoy the outdoors and admire the miracle of flight” and “an excellent way to inspire youth and to get them excited about the sciences”, notes JL Johnson.
(Main photo and above right photo courtesy of JL Johnson. Middle and bottom right photo courtesy of the author, Stephanie Gehman.)