Planes rarely fly over Tibet due to the region’s mountainous terrain and high elevation.

Additionally, planes can’t descend and land in Tibet as easily as other regions due to a lack of large, international airports.

Despite the difficulties of flying over Tibet, there are multiple flights that take place over the region.

Many local, medical evacuation, and military flights do take place in Tibet, so people have flown over the region, even though it’s rare. 

Why Planes Don’t Fly Over Tibet

Most planes won’t fly over Tibet because of the region’s high altitude, which makes it dangerous to fly over.

The Tibet Autonomous Region in China is a sparsely populated and mountainous area in China with an average elevation of over 14,000 feet or 4,500 meters.

There are a few airports in Tibet, but it remains a difficult region to fly over because of its high elevation. 

Here are the four major reasons why planes don’t fly over Tibet. 

1. Difficult to descend safely in emergency situations

The biggest reason for plane’s avoiding flying over Tibet is the region’s high elevation of 4,500 m.

If airplanes experience emergencies like cabin depressurization, they descend to below 10,000 feet or 3,000 m before diverting to an airport. 

With Tibet’s high elevation, airplanes wouldn’t be able to properly descend, and the limited oxygen supply on board wouldn’t be enough to ensure passengers’ safety.

Additionally, since Tibet is sparsely populated and there are only a few airports, it’s also difficult to land planes during emergencies. 

2. Very high turbulence

Turbulence is caused by rapidly moving air currents at different speeds.

There are different types of turbulence caused by various factors like the sun’s heating effect or weather phenomenon.

Although turbulence is possible in any region and even in clear weather conditions, it’s most likely to occur over a mountainous region like Tibet. 

High turbulence can be dangerous and would make flying and landing aircraft especially dangerous over Tibet.

3. Possibility of jet fuel freezing

The atmospheric temperature over mountainous regions is lower than over non-mountainous regions.

The result is that jet fuel can easily freeze, since most jet fuel variants have freezing points between -40 and -47 degree Celsius. 

As a result, it’s increasingly difficult to fly over Tibet as frozen fuel becomes unusable, increasing the likelihood of a plane crash.

4. Challenging to reach wreckage and rescue survivors

Another reason why planes don’t fly over Tibet is due to the region’s mountainous terrain, which makes rescue operations especially difficult.

Even if multiple people survive a plane crash in Tibet, it’s difficult to send rescue teams to assist them.

The harsh conditions of the region also reduce the likelihood of passengers successfully surviving on their own.

Even a plane’s black box could easily get thrown hundreds of meters away during a plane crash, which makes acquiring information about what happened to cause the plane to crash difficult. 

Exceptions to Planes Flying Over Tibet

There are two major exceptions to the general flight restrictions over Tibet. 

1. Military Exercises

Tibet is a militarily significant region to China, which it uses to counter influence from its rival, India.

The Chinese military frequently performs aerial military exercises over Tibet, including flying military jets.

The Chengdu J-20 has been observed flying over high-altitude Tibetan airfields multiple times.

2. Search and Rescue Operations

Search and rescue, as well as medical evacuation operations, are conducted over Tibet for lost tourists, injured locals, or wounded Chinese military personnel.

Tibet’s difficult terrain and lack of infrastructure makes medical evacuations vital during emergency situations.

For example, in 2018 the Chinese air force used Y-9 transport planes to evacuate a wounded officer from Lhasa in Tibet to Chengdu. 

The Route Planes Take When They Avoid Tibet

Most planes fly around the Tibetan Plateau’s borders to avoid flying directly over Tibet.

Some flights will fly from the lowlands near Kathmandu, Nepal, then fly around Central China.

An alternative flight path is to arc over Tibet and fly through eastern China, but this is less common. 

 Other Places on Earth Planes Don’t Fly Over

There are multiple other regions with little or no flight traffic.

Most of these regions are either difficult to fly over because of geography, like Tibet, or for safety and political reasons. 

  • Mecca

Airlines are forbidden from flying over Mecca, Saudi Arabia, especially near Holy sites, due to religious reasons.

Air traffic over Mecca is forbidden out of respect to the Islamic religion and its associated religious sites. 

  • Antarctica

Antarctica has both a hostile climate and no infrastructure. It’s extremely difficult to fly planes over Antarctica for this reason, and the planes that do fly over the continent have special equipment. 

It’s also difficult to fly over Antarctica due to low visibility and the absence of visible terrain.

There are also few commercial advantages to flying over Antarctica, so air traffic over the continent remains extremely low.

In conclusion:

  • Air traffic over Tibet is extremely low.
  • The primary reasons for this are the high terrain elevations and lack of infrastructure in Tibet.
  • It’s very difficult to fly over this region because of its mountainous terrain and the lack of major international airports.

Ella Dunham, a Freelance Travel Journalist and Marketing Manager, boasts an impressive career spanning eight years in the travel and tourism sectors.

Honored as one of "30 Under 30" by TTG Media (the world’s very first weekly travel trade newspaper), a "Tour Operator Travel Guru" and "Legend Award" winner, Ella is also a Fellow of the Institute of Travel, a Member of the Association of Women Travel Executives, has completed over 250 travel modules, and hosts travel-focused segments on national radio shows where she provides insights on travel regulations and destinations.

Ella has visited over 40 countries (with 10 more planned this year).