Ask the Captain: What is a captain-only airport?

Ask the Captain: What is a captain-only airport?
A United Airlines Airbus A319-100 taxis at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport on April 23, 2019.

Question: In a recent answer to a question you mentioned landing at a "captain only" airport. I have never heard this phrase used before. What is the reason for the designation, and can you give examples of airports that have this designation?

– Robert, Long Island, New York

Answer: Some airports are very challenging in terms of terrain, runway length or airspace, and an operator may require that only the captain make the takeoff and landing. This ensures that the most experienced pilot flies into and out of such an airport. An example would be Aspen, Colorado, where the terrain and runway length make for a challenging approach.

The designation of a captain-only airport varies from operator to operator. Some operators have Washington’s Reagan National Airport as captain-only (because of its complex approach); others do not

Other examples of airports that have been designated captain-only by some operators:

• Key West, Florida (due to runway length)

• Eagle, Colorado (due to terrain and runway length)

• Tegucigalpa, Honduras (due to terrain and runway length)

Question: Airports such as Eagle/Vail and St. Thomas are served regularly by 757s. Why don't airlines fly the comparable A321s to these destinations, and will this be something they do once the 757 is retired? Also, American Airlines seems to fly only the post-merger A319s (with sharklets) to Eagle/Vail. Is there a reason they don't fly the older A319s to this destination?

– Jonah, Birmingham, Michigan

Answer: Eagle is a special airport. It is at a high elevation and has mountains nearby. This requires high performance from aircraft operating in and out of the airport. The B757 was one of the highest-performing airliners ever flown; it excelled in these conditions. Airplanes such as the A321 or the B737-900 do not have this level of performance.

Using airplanes with winglets or sharklets increases performance.

Question: What is the purpose of winglets?

– Ruben Treko, Providence, Rhode Island

Answer: They improve the fuel efficiency of the airplane by reducing the drag produced by the vortex created at the wing tip.

John Cox is a retired airline captain with US Airways and runs his own aviation safety consulting company, Safety Operating Systems.