The loss of a plane carrying 72 people in Nepal has highlighted the dangers of air travel in a country often referred to as one of the world’s riskiest places to fly.
Sunday’s crash left at least 68 people dead, making it the worst airplane accident in the Himalayan nation in 30 years. It was also the third-worst aviation accident in the country’s history, according to data from the Aviation Safety Network.
Experts say conditions such as inclement weather, low visibility and mountainous topography all contribute to Nepal’s reputation as a notoriously dangerous place to fly.
Sunday’s Yeti Air flight was 18 minutes into its journey before it lost contact with a control tower in the central city of Pokhara. The aircraft had nearly finished its short journey from Kathmandu, the capital, to Pokhara, Nepal’s second-most populous city and a gateway to the Himalayas.
Fickle weather patterns aren’t the only problem for flight operations. According to a 2019 safety report from Nepal’s Civil Aviation Authority, the country’s “hostile topography” is also part of the “huge challenge” facing pilots.
Nepal, a country of 29 million people, is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains, including Everest, and its beautiful rugged landscapes make it a popular tourist destination for trekkers.
But this terrain can be difficult to navigate from the air, particularly during bad weather, and things are made worse by the need to use small aircraft to access the more remote and mountainous parts of the country.
Aircraft with 19 seats or fewer are more likely to have accidents due to these challenges, the Civil Aviation Authority report said.
The capital of Kathmandu is Nepal’s primary transit hub, from where many of these small flights leave.
The airport in the town of Lukla, in northeastern Nepal, is often referred to as the world’s most dangerous airport. Known as the gateway to Everest, the airport’s runway is laid out on a cliffside between mountains, dropping straight into an abyss at the end.
A lack of investment in aging aircraft only adds to the flying risks.
In 2015, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, prioritized helping Nepal through its Aviation Safety Implementation Assistance Partnership. Two years later, the ICAO and Nepal announced a partnership to resolve safety concerns.
While the country has in recent years made improvements in its safety standards, challenges still remain.
In 2016, a Tara Air flight crashed while flying the same route as the aircraft that was lost Sunday. That incident involved a recently acquired Twin Otter aircraft flying in clear conditions.
In early 2018, a US-Bangla Airlines flight from Dhaka to Kathmandu crashed on landing and caught fire, killing 51 of the 71 people on board.
And in May 2022, a Tara Air flight with 22 people on board crashed into a mountain at an altitude of about 14,500 feet.