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The Places Where Planes Don’t Fly

The sky, like the ocean, seems like one of those places where space shouldn’t be a problem. If you need to fly somewhere, just fly there, right? Well, it’s not so simple. Good airspace, as it turns out, is of a limited supply, due to a number of reasons that make flying over certain places just more trouble than its worth. Sometimes its nature, sometimes is national security, and sometimes it’s just plain economics. Get it? See what we… never mind. Today, we’re going to tell you about the places that planes don’t fly.

A Natural Barrier

This video isn’t going to be a list of places that commercial airlines just happen to avoid, since that list gets updated all the time as the news happens. However, if we did make a list, a few places would be rather permanent entries, starting with Tibet. Tibet is a region within China, known as one of the highest and most mountainous places in the world. This also makes it extremely dangerous to fly over, for a number of reasons.

The first problem is that Tibet is a wasteland. We don’t mean that as the kick in the mountain goat that it sounds like, but only to highlight the sheer lack of people living in such a huge area. Only 14 million people live in the area that constitutes Greater Tibet, and only 3 million people live in the officially defined Tibet “Not Really Autonomous” Autonomous Region.

That low population count makes it one of the least densely populated places on earth, in league with Greenland and Antarctica. If a plane needs help or goes down out here, they’re basically guaranteed to be multiple hours away from help. And of course, no spare runways to divert to if anything goes wrong; the nearest major airports are often hundreds of miles away from each other.

And that’s a problem because Tibet, being so high up, is also extremely cold. The temperature in Lhasa, the largest city in Tibet, regularly drops below freezing in the winter months, and even in the summer it rarely gets above 20 degrees Celsius, or around 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Not a place you would want to be trapped in for multiple hours, waiting for emergency response to arrive. Temperatures high in the air can get even colder, and when they reach -40 degrees Celsius, the jet fuel in the plane can actually freeze in its tanks, which is obviously not a good thing at all.

lhasa tibet
Lhasa from the Pabonka Monastery. By Qeqertaq, is licensed under CC-BY-SA

The elevation of Tibet itself is another risk, since planes usually cruise at around 30,000 to 35,000 feet above sea level. To highlight the problem this presents, suppose you’re in a plane, and the cabin depressurizes. Fun, right? Oxygen masks drop from the ceiling, you get yours on, you help the person next to you just like you were told to at the start of the flight, and boom, everything’s fine. Except everything’s not fine, because you’re flying over Tibet and you’re still going to die. Before you do, though, let’s tell you why that is.

Oxygen is of a limited supply in the plane, between 15 and 20 minute’s worth. In the event of the cabin depressurizing, what the pilots are supposed to do is descend to 10,000 feet, so that there is enough oxygen for everyone to, y’know, breathe. Well, the Tibetan plateau has an average elevation of 14,000 feet, making that literally impossible in most circumstances. Even if the plane were able to get under 10,000 feet, it would probably be in a valley and would crash into a mountain rather quickly, as anyone who’s played an Ace Combat game can probably understand.

Lastly, there’s the wind. Wind gets faster when it flows over mountains, and Tibet has a lot of those, creating wind speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. It also causes the wind to move up and down more often, which results in bad turbulence that could, theoretically, damage the plane sufficiently enough to cause it to crash. It probably wouldn’t, but… it could.

The issues of flying over Tibet have been known about for decades. In World War II, the Allies airlifted supplies over Tibet into China, to aid the Chinese government in fighting off the Japanese. Thousands of pilots were killed or missing, the majority of them not to Japanese fighters, but to the challenging conditions of the airspace. These days, Tibet is still a difficult area to fly through, but airplanes have become more advanced, airlines have become more established, and there are plenty of options for where to fly. Would you go here, when better conditions are only a turn of the flight stick away? Because of all this, you’ll see international flights going out of their way to circle around the Tibetan plateau, and probably will for the foreseeable future.

Now, Tibet is an extreme example of the natural barriers facing airplanes. But there are just as many artificial barriers that humans have erected to go along with them, enough to give them their own section. How’s that for a segue?

Restricted Area

The other kind of obstacle facing flights comes from the most pesky institution that has ever existed, which has been around since long before human flight – the government. Governments are, unsurprisingly, very touchy about the sky above their countries, ever since armies started putting bombs on the undersides of their planes and dropping them on people. As such, nearly every single country in the world has some form of restrictions on the airspace within their borders. In the United States, for example, you cannot fly over certain military bases – no exceptions. That’s usually because those bases have nuclear weapons stored in them, and I don’t think that needs any further explanation.

Beyond that, there are restrictions placed on flying over certain politically significant areas, as well. In Washington D.C., for example, there is exactly one aircraft that can enter and leave the airspace in the area of the White House – Marine One, the president’s personal helicopter. The president themselves has a 30-mile zone of restricted air space around them at all times, meaning that the sitting president of the United States can literally force your flight to detour by just existing. Ain’t that something.

In addition to the United States, there are some rather famous examples of restricted airspace, including the Soviet Union, which had a total ban on all international air traffic flying through their airspace, and North Korea, which still does. For the former (the former Soviet Union, that is… that’s a brilliant joke), the restricted airspace resulted in international flights needing to skirt the borders of the largest country on earth, which had the great bad manners to situate itself right between Europe and East Asia, two of the most economically important regions in the world.

But, except for that one time an 18 year old German snuck through Soviet air defenses and landed a plane in Red Square, the Soviets never compromised on their airspace rules. And so, planes continued to fly around Soviet airspace; they had to, lest they end up like Korean Air Lines Flight 007, which in 1983 was shot down by an Su-15 interceptor after accidentally straying into Soviet airspace, killing all 269 people on board.

Even today, nearly 40 years after that event, the ghost of the Soviet Union continues to haunt the skies, as is the case in Ukraine. There is a war in Eastern Ukraine, and after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 was shot down by a surface to air missile in 2014, airlines made the call to never, under any circumstances, fly over Eastern Ukraine. This tends to happen following events like this, as a similar story emerged with Iran in 2020, when the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps accidentally shot down a civilian airplane – owned by Ukrainian Airlines, interestingly enough – over Tehran. Airlines suddenly made the decision to avoid Iranian airspace for a while so that things could calm down, and immediately after the shootdown, flights already in the air suddenly changed direction to other airports.

But it’s not just wars that make countries unattractive to fly over. Earlier this year, the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, ordered his air force to intercept a Ryanair flight that was flying from Greece to Lithuania, and travelled over Belarusian airspace to do so. He did this so that he could force it to land and have his security forces arrest a dissident, Roman Protasevich, who was on board the flight. This was nothing short of air piracy, and the European Union proceeded to sanction the hell out of Belarus for it. That included strongly discouraging any European airlines to fly over Belarusian airspace, which many airlines were all too happy to oblige because they don’t like the idea of having their planes hijacked. Can’t say we blame them.

With all of the more attention-grabbing reasons out of the way, let’s talk about the last reason planes avoid certain airspaces – overflight fees. If you think that sounds boring… well, you’ve already watched most of the video at this point, so you’re probably not clicking off after hearing that. And hey, this actually is interesting.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia’s airspace went from completely restricted to… marginally less restricted. Russia knows that, by controlling the largest and possibly most important pieces of airspace in the world, it has a lot of power in negotiating with countries and airlines about allowing them to fly through it. To that end, Russia charges up the fuel pipe for the rights to overfly its territory, so that planes can reach their destinations on the other side of the continent. The exact numbers are kept secret, but it’s believed that overflying Russia on an international flight tacks on an extra $100 to your ticket price.

Airlines operate on razor thin margins, and because Russian airspace is prohibitively expensive, budget airlines which live or die on low-cost flights will devise their routes in such a way to avoid Russian airspace while still maximizing their profit by serving attractive destinations. As such, budget airlines from cities in Europe to cities in Asia and the Middle East will often skirt around Russia’s borders, much like the Soviet Union of old. Only now, instead of being shot down, the risk is that Vladimir Putin will take all of your money. Which counts as progress, I suppose.

The Big Blue Sky

So, there you have it – the reasons why planes don’t fly over certain areas. We didn’t cover everything, since that’s a rabbit hole that doesn’t stop, but we’ll leave you with a few interesting airspace restrictions that didn’t fit in the rest of the video. First, at the largest airport in the world, Heathrow International in the UK, there are stringent rules on planes arriving or leaving between 11:30PM and 6:00AM, so that the locals living nearby can get some sleep. Second, China enforces a ban on not just airplanes, but essentially any flying things over Tiananmen Square, a restriction so strict that even homing pigeons are explicitly forbidden from flying there. And third, in the United States, there is a prohibited airspace restriction over Disneyworld, putting Mickey Mouse legally on the same level as the president. But we knew that already.

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