Airline route planning and operational changes are complex but interesting areas. Some passengers will follow this closely, fascinated by where their flight is taking them, while others barely notice as they cruise the skies. If you do follow the map, though, one thing you will see on long-haul flights to Asia is that they never fly over the Tibet Autonomous Region in China, despite its vast size.
Few aircraft over Tibet
The region in question is the Tibet Autonomous Region in China. This is a sparsely populated and mountainous area, also known as the Tibetan plateau – a meaningful name given that the average elevation in the region is over 4,500 meters.
With it being sparsely populated, there are few flights to or within the region (the whole area only accounts for 0.2% of China’s population, to put it in context). There are international airports in Lhasa (pictured above) and Xining, and plenty of flights now operate to China and regionally. But airlines flying to or from other destinations will avoid the region entirely, despite it often being the most direct route.
Take a look at this image from FlightRadar24.com showing the airports in the region. You will note the whole region is empty of flights, with several aircraft tracking just above and below.
So why do airlines do this? There are three main reasons, as explained in a video by RealLifeLore.
Not able to descend to a safe altitude in an emergency
The leading reason for aircraft avoiding the region is the high average height of the terrain. This is over 14,000 feet. Aircraft, of course, cruise much higher than this. But the procedure in the event of an emergency such as cabin depressurization is to descend to 10,000 feet before diverting to an airport.
With terrain this high, the aircraft would not be able to descend sufficiently. There is, of course, oxygen provided for passengers. But this is a limited supply and based on the assumption that the aircraft will quickly reach a safe altitude. To make the situation worse, there are few diversion airports, and these could be a long flight from some parts of the region.
Photo: Getty Images
To avoid a situation where the plane cannot descend fast enough, airlines opt to skip the Tibetan region altogether. Usually, the only flights overflying are those bound for Lhasa or the five more airports in the province, meaning there is still some traffic. However, as we saw above on the map, Tibet’s airspace is nearly empty compared to the skies around it.
Risk of increased turbulence
Turbulence during a flight is caused by air currents moving up and down in ripples and at different speeds. This is impacted by several factors, including the sun’s heating effect, weather conditions – and mountains. Air currents will rise over mountains, creating disrupting flows.
Turbulence can happen on any route – as we have all experienced. But in this high mountainous region, it is more likely and could be hard to avoid. This would be disrupting for passengers and also could make an emergency situation even more dangerous.
Photo: Getty Images
During tropical storms, flights might be asked to go over the storm system to avoid the worst of turbulence, though usually, they skip flying altogether. However, with mountains to contend with, this task is extremely difficult for pilots and risks passenger safety. Therefore, with the possibility of adverse weather ever-present, flying over high mountains is less than ideal for commercial flights.
Risk of jet fuel freezing
And not surprisingly, the final reason is also linked to the mountainous terrain. Temperatures are much lower, which leads to a risk the jet fuel could freeze. Standard Jet A1 fuel has a freezing point of -47 degrees Celsius (and Jet A, which is more common in the US, is slightly higher at -40 degrees).
Such temperatures are rarely reached, especially for prolonged periods of time. But at altitude over the already cold mountains, there is an increased risk of this. It is not a significant problem for shorter flights in or out of the region, but a sustained long flight over the area could be different.
Photo: Getty Images
While this may not seem like a huge concern, jet fuel freezing can lead to serious crashes. In 2008, British Airways flight 38 crash-landed in London Heathrow after ice crystals formed in the fuel mixture and clogged the engine, causing the plane to crash short of the runway. Luckily, there were no fatalities that day, but the incident underscored how important temperature can be for jet fuel flow.
Therefore, flying over Tibet for hours could lead to even more unknown impacts on the jet fuel mixture, leaving airlines at risk of losing their engines.
Have you flown in the Tibetan region? Or would you like to discuss any other airline routing facts? Let us know in the comments.