Photo Of The Week: The Lukla Airport

Each Wednesday I’ll be spotlighting a different photo from my travels around the world.

This weeks photo is from Lukla, Nepal, the starting point for most treks to Everest Base Camp and home to “The Worlds Most Extreme Airport” as deemed by the History Channel due to the ever changing weather conditions as well as the incline of the runway, which on one end is capped by a solid rock wall and on the other by a sheer drop.  I can say, from first hand experience that the pilots who fly into this airport are truly skilled, a fact I am so grateful for.

 

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Could It Be Worse?: Flight Nightmares

Flying.  Depending on the traveler you talk to it’s either a necessary evil or a great adventure.

I grew up in the city of Boeing, but I didn’t fly for the first time until I was 14, when my family spent spring break on Maui.  I don’t remember much from that flight, just that my headphone jack didn’t work so I couldn’t watch the movie.  It went smoothly and we didn’t crash, I guess those are the important facts.

Since that first flight I’ve flown more than 50 times.  The excitement of flying soon wore off and I quickly became the “necessary evil” sort of traveler, looking forward to flights only because they would get me somewhere new and exciting.  Then I started traveling internationally.  The flights were longer, but in flight on demand entertainment?  Yes please!

However, all of my flight experiences haven’t been peaches and roses.  You talk to any long term traveler and I think they’ll have some sort of flight horror story to share with you.  The following are mine.

1.  Flight: Bangkok, Thailand to Kathmandu, Nepal via Dhaka
     Airline: Biman Bangladesh

My first year in Thailand some of my co-workers and I decided to spend our two week semester-break trekking in Nepal.  Because Thailand is geographically closer to Nepal than say the US we assumed flights to Katmandu would be cheaper, especially since Bangkok is a hub.  No such luck.  The cheapest Thai Airways flight we could find was for $1000!  Yikes!  We put our plight into the able hands of a travel agent and she was able to find us a flight to Nepal for $500 on the obscure Biman Bangladesh Airlines the national airlines of Bangladesh.  I’d never heard of it.  After a little research I learned that the airlines poor safety records caused it to be banned from flying into many western nations, including the US.  There is also a video on youtube of one of Bimans planes hitting a terminal in Dubai.  We booked it anyway, crossed our fingers and prayed we wouldn’t die.

The night of our departure the flight arrived three hours late. That there should have been a sign for what we were in for.  As we boarded the ancient Boeing 777 I noticed a few things immediately.  First, the interior hadn’t been updated since about 1971.  We’re talking floral wallpaper, neon green floral print chairs, a giant faded picture of women working in a field where the movie screen would typically be and about 2 inches of legroom.  Second, I was one of maybe 5 women on the packed plane, three of which were my friends.  Interesting.

Finally as the clock approached mid-night we were taxiing onto the runway.  Then a strange thing happened.  As we were speeding down the runway, the force of gravity pushing us back into our seats, a man somewhere on the plane yelled something in a foreign language and every other man on the plane replied.  I’m sure whatever they said had cultural or religious significance, but in my mind, at that moment I was convinced we were going down.  Thankfully we didn’t “go down,” that is unless you include that large man sitting in front of my who reclined his seat all the way into my lap, that was fun.

A few hours later we arrived in Dhaka where we had a 12 hour layover and, desperate to get away from the crowds we opted to pay a $20 “visa fee” so that we could stay for “free” in a hotel.

Our next flight to Kathmandu was uneventful and I thought possibly Biman was redeeming itself, but then came the flight back to Thailand.  The flight itself wasn’t bad except another $20 shelled out on a long layover in Dhaka.  This time my qualm and frustration actually came at the Kathmandu airport.

Like all good airline customers we waited in line to get our tickets.  We waited forever in a long, long line.  Finally we got to the front and were informed by the women working behind the computer that she didn’t have our reservation.  What do you mean you don’t have our reservation? We flew here 2 weeks ago!  She told us we would have to travel to the Biman office in downtown Kathmandu to get it worked out.  Unacceptable.  Our visas were expiring, we had to start work on Monday, we needed to be on that plane.  We waited, begged, pleaded and finally called for the manager who was no help at all.  Finally in a last ditch effort I pulled out my ticket from our flight to Kathmandu.  The woman looked at my ticket, punched in some numbers and viola!  Our reservations.  Hmmm.  Some system improvement is needed.

Lesson learned: Always hold on to your plane ticket until you have left the country and don’t fly Biman Bangladesh.

Biman

2.  Flight: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Los Angeles, California via Guangzhou, China
      Airline: China Southern Airways

Maybe I’ve been spoiled in my international travels.  I’m flown on some pretty amazing airlines, Cathay Pacific, Qatar, Turkish, but China Southern Airlines I was thoroughly unimpressed by, and in the future, even if it is the cheapest flight available I will not fly on this airline.  Why?  Let me tell you.

The flight from Guangzhou to LA was about 12 hours, which is a pretty decent length in terms of flying.  I have no long and elaborate story for this flight like the Biman flight.  What sucked about this flight, was the details.  The stewardesses were grumpy and spoke next to no English, all of them. There was no leg room, which made sleeping, moving or even just sitting comfortably next to impossible.  There were individual screens in each chair, but they weren’t on demand.  Instead they showed a handful of Chinese movies and two English movies, both of which played once the entire night, and at the same time. But it didn’t even really matter because every time the person in the chair in front of me moved the screen shorted out.  So I gave up.  Once chairs were reclined I didn’t even have enough room to read a book on my Kindle.  Let’s just say 12 hours with no source of entertainment=awful!

But I haven’t even gotten to the worst part yet.  Out of the 12 hours in the flight, at least 9 of those were spent experiencing extreme turbulence.  Not just shaking, but the type of turbulence where if you aren’t wearing your seatbelt you’ll hit the ceiling.  As we flew across the Pacific my friends and I all had visions of LOST running through our minds.  In a large airplane turbulence like that just shouldn’t happen.

The one redeeming quality of the flight?  The food was surprisingly not the bad.  Who would have thought?

Lesson learned:  Don’t fly China Southern even if they are the cheapest.  We couldn’t even get them to give us air miles for the horrible flight.  A waste.

China Southern

3. Flight: Kathmandu to Lukla, Nepal
     Airline: Yeti Airline

A couple years ago the History channel did a special on the worlds most extreme airports.  Number 1 on their list?  The airport in Lukla, Nepal.

Built into the side of a mountain, Lukla is the starting off point for treks to Everest Base camp.  Because of it’s location the runway is both short and at a slope.  At one end of the runway is a rock wall and at the other end a steep drop-off.  Any mistakes here can be deadly.   Only one week before my friends and I flew to Nepal to begin our Everest Trek a Yeti Airlines flight crashed at the Lukla airport, killing all onboard but the pilot.  See, the airport isn’t only dangerous because of its precarious runway, pilots also have to battle cloud banks that roll in every afternoon.  That doomed flight got stuck in a cloudbank and crashed into a huge boulder at the end of the runway, causing the fateful accident..

I have to admit, boarding our flight that day made me nervous.  Normally airlines are so much safer to fly on after crashes because they’re really paying attention and cracking down, but in Lukla problems are attributed to atmosphere and fate.  Items you can’t control.  It also didn’t help that as we boarded the twenty-seater airplane our seats were glorified lawn chairs and there was no door into the cockpit so we could stare out the front window or even talk to the pilots if we wanted.  I was stressed from the first minute but my real stress came as we approached the runway in Lukla.  Sitting just behind the pilots I literally had a front row seat.  I saw where the runway dropped off.  I saw the giant boulder sitting on the edge and I saw the large rock wall at the other end, but thankfully there wasn’t a cloud in site.  We landed safely, and our flight back to Kathmandu at the end of our trek went without a hitch as well.  Thankfully accidents at Lukla are few and far between and I’m so grateful that I was a lucky one.

Lesson Learned:  Take risks.  Don’t let fear of the possible hold you back.

Lukla

So those are my flight nightmares?  How about you?  What was your worst flight?  I know there are some crazy stories from some of the European airlines and I would love to hear them!