Why is Lukla the most dangerous airport in the world?

The Lukla airport also functions as a busy tourist centre. Photo: Shutterstock/Vojtech Flidr

Airports could pose a challenge to pilots for a range of reasons. They could vary from hurdles like the short runways on some Greek islands to constant gusts of wind or changing weather patterns. But, for a moment, think of landing on the slope of a mountain adjacent to Mount Everest… just a slip-up by the pilot, and the plane could go hurtling down the steep cliffs. One might think this is mere scaremongering. But, know the fact that hundreds of people land at this airport every single day, with the flights operating like a shuttle service. We are talking about Lukla, which is the most dangerous airport in the world and is situated at a distance of 40 minutes travel by air from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu.

Gateway to Everest; heart-thumping runway
The Malayalam film “CID Moosa” has a scene towards its end where Salim Kumar pilots a plane. It’s a hit-or-miss ride. The flight to the Lukla airport resembles the movie scene. It is an adventurous trip with the plane flying just above the mountain peaks, pitching, rolling, and yawing all the while. Although it is famous as the most dangerous airport in the world, Lukla is also known as an extremely busy one. The aerodrome that is situated at an altitude of around 9,500 feet above sea level, is also called the Tenzing-Hillary Airport. It was constructed under the supervision of the world-famous mountaineer, Sir Edmund Hillary, in 1964. Lukla is a small town that is 2,860 metres above sea level in the Khumbu area of Solukhumbu district of north-eastern Nepal.

Although many consider this as a simple place with just the airport and a few hotels, the small town has much more in store for visitors. After the airport was extended, it gained more popularity, with the town becoming the favourite haunt of those who wish to visit the Himalayas. In fact, trekkers who arrive in Lukla have to travel two more days to reach Namche village at the foot of Everest. There are two high-end, expensive facilities in the village offering accommodation and luxuries like hot tubs and other services at the base of the Himalayas.

Most of those who reach Lukla have on their minds a visit to Everest, as the town is the gateway to the Himalayas. The runway of the airport is just 527-metre long but what is more scary is that it is situated 2,896 metres (9,501 feet) above sea level. As the altitude increases, the air becomes more rarefied and grows thinner. This means that planes would have to land at a faster pace at this airport in order to maintain the momentum of the aircraft. The peak of a tapering mountain juts out near the edge of the landing point. This calls for the pilot to apply the brakes just at the right time. Except for these challenges, the Lukla airport is a safe one.

Cancellation of flights due to inclement weather is frequent here. Nevertheless, no fewer than 100 flights conduct services to the airport every day. Small planes with a seating capacity of 16 persons are the ones that ply on the route. Even as a plane that arrived earlier takes off after the passengers disembark, another plane lands. Most of the passengers are usually foreigners who arrive for trekking to the Himalayan peaks such as the Base Camp and the Everest. The Lukla airport also functions as a busy tourist centre.  

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