Why I'm still flying in Nepal

Thoughts on risk, emotion and reason

By Cath Taylor

Published 16 Jan 2023

Yesterday’s fatal air accident in Nepal is unspeakably sad. 
My heart sank when I heard the news: sorrow for the families of those who’d lost their lives; questions about how and why the tragedy occurred. International Nepal Fellowship Australia, where I work as Communications Manager, also has many friends and staff in the country. A colleague flew to Kathmandu from Sydney over the weekend. 
In two weeks I’ll be taking my first trip to Nepal to visit our projects in various parts of the country. One of our flights is the same well-worn route between Kathmandu and Pokhara, and there are a couple of others to regional areas.

This recent accident raises an emotional question. Is the trip safe?

At one level, the answer seems obvious. As many media outlets are pointing out today, the aviation industry in Nepal has one of the lowest safety records in the world – a combination of underdeveloped infrastructure and aviation authorities, unpredictable weather and treacherous terrain.
It’s improving: new aircraft, a Civil Aviation Authority implementing more rigorous safety standards, airport upgrades, better navigation tools and improved runways. But economic development in Nepal struggles to keep pace with demand for services – particularly to popular trekking areas which have some of the most difficult landings in the world.
So how risky is it to get on a plane at the end of the month? And even if we objectively know the answer, are we able to get to a place where we can accept it? 

Here are the facts: statistically I’m far more likely to die in a car accident here in Australia than in a plane accident in Nepal.

Last year, 22 people were killed in Nepal due to a single plane crash.

During the same period on Australian roads, 1 187 people died.

Taking the longer view, 273 people have been killed in the Nepal in 17 air crashes since 2000. Tragic as they are, these statistics pretty clearly demonstrate that the odds of dying on board a plane in Nepal are far lower than the chance of dying in a motor vehicle accident in Australia. In 2020, the rate of road accident fatalities in Australia was 4.3 deaths per 100,000 people.

When you think about it, these facts aren’t at all surprising. But emotionally, its not anywhere near as simple.

 Flying feels dangerous because our brains are hard wired to focus on the most immediate, dramatic threats rather than on those that are long-term and familiar. We’re also more likely to remember vivid, negative imagery which can cause us to overestimate the risks of a certain activities – like swimming. The likelihood of being killed by a shark on a Sydney beach is vanishingly remote, estimated to be less than one in eight million. It’s about the same as being killed by a kangaroo. But who hasn’t glanced down anxiously while swimming at least once in a while, particularly after a shark attack has featured on the nightly news? 

The truth is that our perception is really skewed about risk.

Given that the leading cause of death in my age group is related to heart attack and stroke, the riskiest thing I’m likely to do this month is eat too much chocolate. That probably won’t prevent me from indulging.
Much as it pains us to admit it, we humans are not routinely rational creatures. Emotion is powerful and important; a gift that can guide us and make us better humans. But at the same time, taking a look at the objective facts and being aware of the bias in our thinking can help us live with less anxiety while embracing experiences that we’ll enjoy and that will help us be a force for good in the world. 
There are, understandably, thousands of potential visitors to Nepal who will now think twice before booking flights this year. And because I’m human, I too will feel a bit anxious about the flights and other aspects of this trip, as will my family. But on the whole, I think that as we grieve the impact of yesterday’s tragedy, there are rational decisions we can make with far reaching impacts. 
The most effective response in solidarity with the people of Nepal to this tragedy would be not only to maintain out commitments to visit, enjoy and learn about the people and country, but invest in sustainable giving and advocacy for aid. This not only helps provide resources to improve their infrastructure (including aviation), but to tackle limited access to health and education, and respond to the increase in natural disasters due to changing climate.

Long after the plane headlines vanish, these challenges will continue to represent an ongoing tragedy for the people of Nepal.

Want to know more about how to assist?
Visit International Nepal Fellowship here.