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The truth about Nepal fight safety

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Domestic flights in Nepal

Due to Nepal’s terrain, road conditions and the sheer length of the country, taking a short flight between places can save hours or even days of travel. The tickets are relatively inexpensive too, so it’s no wonder that Nepal’s domestic airlines carried a record 3.54 million passengers in 2021.

Accidents have increased too. The tragic Tara Air crash in May 2022, in which 22 lost their lives, has brought Nepal flight safety into focus once again, 3 years after the last fatal accident in the country.

We’ll take a look at the Nepal flight safety record, explain the reasons behind the accidents and give advice on alternative travel and how to reduce risk.

Table of Contents

Everest view from the plane
View from the plane above the Himalayas

How safe is it to fly, generally?

Before looking at Nepal flight safety in detail, it’s worth giving some context. Statistically, flying remains the safest form of long-distance travel the world has ever seen. For example, in 2018 over 4.3 billion passengers flew on over 46 million flights worldwide, including in many developing nations where flight safety standards are lower. The fatal accident rate was equivalent to 1 per 4.2 million flights (source: IATA)

Harvard University puts the individual risk of dying in an air crash even lower, at 1 in 11 million.

Statistically, flying is safer than all other major forms of transport.

What is the Nepal flight safety record like?

Compared to the global average, Nepal has a relatively poor record for reasons we’ll explain below. Over the past three decades there have been 27 fatal air crashes – just under one per year. Most involved small aircraft, with the notable exception of the 2018 crash at Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu which was a larger aircraft from Bangladesh, and the 1992 Pakistan International Airlines crash at the same location.

10 of these Nepal air accidents have happened in the past 10 years, although this reflects an increase in the amount of fights more than a drop in overall safety.

Why do plane crashes happen in Nepal?

There are a number of reasons affecting Nepal flight safety;

  • Nepal is one of the world’s highest and most mountainous countries, which presents a range of aviation challenges.
  • Smaller mountain airports often have short approaches and runways, such as Lukla which is regarded as one of the most challenging landings by pilots.
  • The weather at this altitude can change quickly and with little warning, especially when flying mountain routes.
  • With poor weather comes poor visibility and pilot disorientation, which has been blamed for a number of accidents.
  • Mountain routes have to use smaller, more manoeuvrable propeller planes which are more vulnerable to weather conditions.
  • Although steps are gradually being taken to modernise fleets, there has been a lack of investment in new aircraft from many of the airlines that operate in the region.

Nepal actually performs above the global average for flight safety in a number of categories, and in April 2022 was given a score of 70.1% in a safety audit by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), with the worldwide average sitting at 67.2%.

However, the practical challenges of flying over Nepal’s terrain place the country below average in terms of overall safety, sitting 102nd out of 121 countries in a recent ranking by backgroundchecks.org.

What is being done about it?

Nepal flight safety is under near-constant review and, in light of the recent Tara Air crash, rules have been tightened around operating in adverse weather conditions, obligating airlines and airports to suspend operations in certain circumstances, and giving final approval to air traffic services on all flight plans. The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) are also considering making two pilots mandatory for single-engine planes.

Externally, the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations agency, have prioritised helping Nepal through its Aviation Safety Implementation Assistance Partnership.

Of course, nothing can change Nepal’s weather conditions and terrain, but some steps are being taken to improve aircraft safety and organisation.

How can I reduce the risk?

Whilst the overall risk of flying anywhere in Nepal remains statistically low, certain routes are naturally more prone to accidents than others. Most accidents occur with smaller planes in mountainous regions, such as flights to Jomsom (destination of the recent Tara Air crash) and Lukla.

Popular routes such as Kathmandu to Pokhara tend to operate with larger planes and over less hostile terrain, so the risk is significantly lower.

It’s also totally possible to plan an itinerary with little or no domestic flights involved, and many people do – there are plenty of highlights and outstanding trekking regions which can be reached quite easily by road from Kathmandu or Pokhara.

Make sure you thoroughly research the travel options available if you plan to go somewhere. You can also get in touch with our team for help planning and organising transport, accommodation, tours or treks.

What are the alternatives to flying in Nepal?

Nepal has no national rail network, so ground travel is restricted to the country’s long, winding and occasionally very bumpy roads. Buses are an inexpensive option and cover most possible routes, or you can hire a private transfer for a little extra comfort, and usually a quicker journey.

Drivers in Nepal operate with a whole different set of rules and customs to what you might be used to elsewhere in the world, and for that reason we wouldn’t generally recommend car hire for foreign travellers.

You can read more about the available options in our Getting around Nepal guide.

A jeep driving through a Nepali town

In summary, flying in Nepal does carry more risk than it would in Europe, for example, particularly on mountain routes where weather and terrain make flying more challenging.

But it remains statistically very unlikely that you’d be involved in an accident, and given the time savings and road conditions often found in Nepal, flying remains a very popular options for travellers and locals alike.

For more on international and domestic flights in Nepal, visit our flight info page.

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