Why fatal plane crashes in Nepal are above average

  • The plane crash, which claimed 70 lives on Sunday, is the latest in a series of fatal plane crashes that the country has experienced in recent years.
  • Nepal is one of the world’s worst performing countries in terms of aviation safety.
  • According to experts, this is due to the dangerous terrain to land on, harsh weather conditions and lack of safety infrastructure.
  • Also read: 5 things you really shouldn’t do on a plane, according to an experienced flight attendant

The plane crash in Nepal, which has so far killed 70 people, is the latest in a series of fatal plane crashes that the country has experienced in recent years.

None of the 68 passengers and four crew members of the Yeti Airlines plane reportedly survived the January 15 crash outside the city of Pokhara. Authorities are still investigating the exact cause of the plane’s crash.

Since 2000, a total of 357 passengers have died in 19 commercial plane crashes in Nepal, according to data from the Aviation Safety Network. Nepal is therefore characterized as one of the least safe countries in the world when it comes to air travel.

Three aviation experts analyze for Business Insider what keeps going wrong in Nepal and share how you can travel to the country as safely as possible.

The high peaks of the Himalayas

The tourism sector is important to Nepal as this sector contributes about 7 percent to the gross domestic product. And because Nepal is one of the homelands of the Himalayas, the country is an interesting destination.

“The country’s high altitude is therefore one of the reasons why flying to Nepal can be dangerous,” says aviation expert Ron Bartsch. “The high altitude and thin air at Nepal’s airports make it difficult for planes to get the pressure and lift they need to take off and land safely.”

According to Hassan Shahidi, CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, this can be seen in the causes of the last 12 fatal plane crashes in Nepal. In 60 percent of the accidents, something went wrong during landing, causing the plane to accidentally crash into the ground, a mountain, or water.

“In most cases, there is nothing wrong with the aircraft, but the crew, for example, cannot see the mountain and its peaks properly,” explains Shahidi.

Nepal’s security facilities and infrastructure

“There is not a lot of money available in Nepal when it comes to aviation infrastructure,” says aviation safety expert Geoffrey Thomas. “You don’t always have the best airfields or navigational aids, and the terrain is very treacherous.”

Take for example the Tenzing-Hillary airport in Nepal, which is located at an altitude of 2845 meters and is known as the best airport to land in when traveling to Mount Everest base camp. Tenzing-Hillary has only one runway, which also runs downhill.

It is therefore called the most dangerous airport in the world and is the airport with the highest number of fatal air accidents in Nepal since 1960.

Photo: Zakir Hossain Chowdhury/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

In 2015, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) identified Nepal as a country in urgent need of assistance to improve its aviation safety standards.

Thomas emphasizes that Nepalese airlines should spend more to raise safety standards by buying better equipment and providing more training.

Even decades-old planes, such as the ATR-72 that crashed Sunday, can be modernized and thus made safer by incorporating modern electronics, Thomas said.

“In New Zealand, where you also have high mountain ranges, the planes are equipped with navigation systems and satellite links. They can land in a snowstorm and fly between the mountains only a meter away,” says Thomas. “Their ATRs are equipped with the necessary tools to navigate properly.”

But many of these tools are offered as optional add-ons by manufacturers, he adds. “A lot of budget airlines say they don’t need this to cut costs,” says Thomas.

Bartsch emphasizes that stricter regulations for airlines in Nepal are essential to prevent accidents. “If you don’t have an effective safety regulator in a country, it means that some airlines can cut corners or do things that are not in the interest of safety.”

Nepal received an implementation score of 70.1 percent from ICAO in its 2022 safety audit, slightly higher than the global average of 67.2 percent, according to local newspaper The Kathmandu Post. In comparison, Germany got a score of 92 percent in 2021 and Australia got a score of 94.5 percent in 2022.

The airline you fly with makes the biggest difference

“There’s not much you can do as a traveler to make your flight safer when traveling to a country like Nepal,” says Bartsch.

“It’s best to look at the safety data of the specific airline you’re targeting,” he says. “Because even in countries with poor safety records, you have very safe airlines.”

All Nepal-based airlines have been banned from flying over EU airspace since 2013 due to concerns about their safety standards.

“It’s important to research the different types of terrain in the country you’re traveling to,” says Shahidi. “And you also want to have insight into past airline performance.”

Thomas, who runs the website AirlineRatings.com, says his site no longer rates Nepali airlines, including Yeti Airlines. This is because some Nepali airlines have complained about the low safety ratings they had on the site.

He says he is reconsidering that decision after Sunday’s crash, which killed 15 foreigners on board. “Maybe we’ll reconsider and put the ratings back on so people can better decide which airline is the safest option,” says Thomas.

The Nepal Civil Aviation Authority and Yeti Airlines did not respond to Business Insider’s requests for comment.

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