Tibet has become a ‘no-go zone’ for commercial aviation for a number of reasons, most of them linked to safety. The Tibetan plateau is located in a geographically challenging area for airplanes. In the north, there is a sharp escarpment where the altitude drops from around 5,000 meters to 1,500 meters over a horizontal distance shorther than 150 kilometers.
Tibet is the highest region on Earth, with an average altitude of 4,900 meters. Any incident in an aircraft that would cause the masks to deploy would be a problem, as they only have oxygen for 20 minutes at best, a time in which it would be impossible to reach an altitude of 3,048 meters (10,000 feet), where supplemental oxygen is no longer necessary. And that is taking into account that most of Tibet is above that altitude, so it would be materially impossible to achieve it, except in very specific places.
“There are flight rules in place that force operators to be able to descend to 10,000 feet prior to running out of emergency oxygen. Obviously, this part of Asia is a huge region, and there would be a large swath that would be impossible to escape so quickly,” Tim Hibbetts, an airline worker, wrote on online forum Quora, as reported by Interesting Engineering.
Another challenge is linked to the scarcity of airports in the area. There are only two: Lhasa Gonggar, located in the capital of the Tibet Autonomous Region, and Kathmandu, in the capital of Nepal. In the event of any kind of medical emergency in the air, the time to reach either of the two points is relatively long, which could pose a risk to a person in need of assistance. Lhasa is at an altitude of 3,650 meters, with the difficulties that this could entail for the acclimatization of the passengers, who could suffer problems related to hypoxia.
Aircraft are designed to fly with only one engine in the event of an engine failure. In fact, this type of failure is more likely than we think, but aircraft are prepared to cope with this type of situation without even the passengers noticing. The only change is that a safety protocol is applied, whereby the plane descends to a height that depends on the gross weight of the aircraft. The difficulty in Tibet is that any safe height is below the altitude of the region itself, so the protocol could not be carried out.
There is also the issue of turbulence. According to the Federal Aviation Administration it is the first cause of attention to passengers inside an aircraft. It is the turbulent movement of large air currents that cannot be predicted because there are no visual clues to them, which causes unexpected movements of the aircraft. One of the main causes is proximity to mountain ranges, precisely the main characteristic of Tibet, which has some of the highest points on the planet.
During World War II, many Allied aircraft were forced to pass through after Japanese troops took control of Burma’s roads. The only way to reach India was by air and plane crashes became the norm. The danger of the area, despite advances in aeronautics, continues to make Tibet unfeasible as a common passageway.