Airplanes are traveling through the skies pretty much everywhere on earth at all times. But if you were to open up a live global air traffic map right now and pan over to Asia, you’ll see nothing over a massive area of the continent regardless of whenever you do this. It always appears that all of the world’s airplanes are simply avoiding this huge area of Tibet and going out of their way to fly around it like it’s some kind of forbidden zone to travel over or fly through. And it’s not like this is the middle of the ocean. This is a huge area of land directly over Asia the world’s most heavily populated continent. So why does this happen?
Why planes avoid flying over Tibet?
Well, there are a lot of reasons. but before we get into that you need to know about some aviation history in the region. Tibetan plateau is one of the world’s biggest wastelands after Antarctica and northern green land. The Tibetan plateau is the least hospitable place for humans to live in the entire world.
It’s an area that’s over five times larger than France but only has a population of a little over 14 million people. Because the plateau’s average elevation is over 4500 meters tall, making the Tibetan plateau the highest geographic region in the world and earning it the nickname The Roof of the World. The nickname is deserved because the roof of the world has been one of the world’s biggest obstacles to aviation for decades.
History of Tibetian Aviation
The first large-scale attempt to fly across the plateau was during the Second World War. When the allies in what was then British India needed to airlift supplies into china to assist them in the fight against the Japanese. The route wasn’t especially far simply a distance of just 840 kilometers. They were flying over the remote mountains and high steps of the Tibetan plateau.
The pilots faced extremely violent turbulence, wind speeds up to 200 miles per hour, temperatures cold enough to freeze their fuel, Implement weather events that were difficult to predict. And almost no emergency airports that they could divert to in the event of an accident. Over the time span of 42 months 594 planes and 1659 men were lost in the mountains and never seen again.
Today luckily for the modern airliners the Tibetan plateau has been gradually opened up in the decades. Since the Second World War, the first airport in Chinese Tibet was built in 1956. And the modern airport in the Tibetan capital Lhasa was built a decade later in 1965.
Today there are two significant international airports located on the Tibetan plateau in Lhasa and Xining. Both of these airports primarily handle domestic air travel to and from the rest of China. But Lhasa has a single international flight to Kathmandu while Xining maintains flights to Taipei, Tokyo, and Kuala Lumpur. So it’s true that there sometimes are planes flying over the Tibetan plateau in modern times. But almost every international flight between eastern Asia and the west goes out of the way to avoid flying over it.
Why do most airliners continue to avoid flying over Tibet today, despite the existence of modern international airports and being able to actually fly over the mountains? It ultimately comes down to four primary reasons:
- Risks of emergency
- The high elevation of the Tibetan Plateau
- Extreme cold temperature
- High-speed wind and turbulence
The huge risk during emergency situations.
If anything happens over Tibet the only nearby major international airport safe enough and close enough for most big airliners to divert to in an emergency are Lhasa, Xining, Kathmandu, Chengdu, Urumqi, and Almati. These airports are all hundreds or thousands of kilometers away from each other. And they mostly ring around the uninhabited plateau. When a plane flies from Kathmandu to Lhasa, Kathmandu and Lhasa are the alternate emergency airports in addition to being the destination.
The deeper an emergency happens into the plateau the more dangerous the emergency becomes. Because of how far away you can get from any airports to divert. It leads to a long time up in the air without any oxygen.
There aren’t that many shorter domestic flights either because there are just so few people. The Tibet autonomous region in China has just a little over 3 million people who live across the entire massive area. Despite Tibet taking up almost 13% of china’s total land it only accounts for 0.2% of china’s total population.
High-speed wind and turbulence
When fast winds move across the plateau and the mountains, the wind will often lead to turbulence. Going through it can get extremely bumpy which can further complicate any emergency scenarios.
The high elevation of the Tibetan Plateau
The average elevation of the Tibetan plateau is well over 14,000 feet. And airliners usually cruise at over 30,000 feet. But under certain critical emergency situations, airline protocol is to descend down to 10,000 feet. Emergency situations like a cabin depressurization or engine failure event.
In a cabin depressurization scenario, the plane will drop oxygen masks for passengers to breathe. But there’s only a limited supply for only around 20 minutes. This is intended to be enough time for the passengers to last breathing on while the plane descends down to 10,000 feet. Here normal breathing conditions can be resumed.
Obviously, this isn’t possible anywhere over the vast Tibetan plateau. Because the average elevation is over fourteen thousand feet it would almost certainly crash into the side of a mountain.
Extreme cold temperature
There’s the problem with jet fuel also. Theoretically, jet fuel freezes when the temperature gets below -40 Celsius. Extremely cold conditions like that rarely take place anywhere the jets fly. This isn’t really a problem for a short flight. But for longer flights that might last for six hours or more, this can become a really significant problem.
Ultimately the big reason why airplanes almost always avoid flying over the Tibetan plateau to get to their destinations isn’t because of any supernatural curse or something like that. If they were to experience an emergency while flying across it would perhaps be the most dangerous place to experience it.
It’s a reminder that despite how advanced connected, safe, and small our world may seem. There are still a few wild and remote areas left that are dangerous for us to travel through.