Lukla airport, also known as Tenzing-Hillary airport, is a small but significant airport in the Solu-Khumbu region of Nepal, serving as the primary gateway for trekkers and mountaineers seeking to explore the Everest region. It is named after the first climbers to summit Mount Everest and has a short runway, steep incline, and unpredictable weather conditions.
The airport was built in 1964 under the supervision of Sir Edmund Hillary, who originally intended to build it on flat farmland. However, local farmers did not want to give up their land, so the airport was built in its current position. Hillary bought the land from local Sherpas for US$ 2,650 and involved them in building the facilities. It has been said that Hillary was unhappy with the runway’s soil resistance, and that his solution was to buy local liquor for the Sherpas and ask them to perform a foot-stomping dance to flatten the land that served as the runway. The runway was not paved until 2001. In January 2008, the airport was renamed in honour of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary, the first people confirmed to have reached the summit of Mount Everest, and also to mark their efforts in the construction of this airport.
The airport is popular because it is considered the starting point for treks towards Mount Everest Base Camp. There are daily flights between Lukla and Kathmandu during daylight hours in good weather. Although the flying distance is short, rain commonly occurs in Lukla while the sun is shining brightly in Kathmandu. High winds, cloud cover, and changing visibility often mean flights can be delayed or the airport closed. The airport is contained within a chain-link fence and is patrolled by the Nepali armed police or civil police around the clock for security. The airport is used for passenger flights and for transporting most of the building materials and cargo to Lukla and other towns and villages to the north of Lukla, as there is no road to this region.
The airport is named after Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary, the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest on May 29, 1953. Tenzing Norgay was a Nepali-Indian Sherpa mountaineer who was born in Khumbu, near the airport. Edmund Hillary was a New Zealand mountaineer, explorer, and philanthropist who devoted much of his life to helping the Sherpa people of Nepal through the Himalayan Trust, which he founded.  The airport’s name is a tribute to their courage, skill, and contribution to the development of the region.
The airport is located in the town of Lukla, in Khumbu Pasanglhamu, Solukhumbu District, Koshi Province of Nepal. It is situated at the edge of a cliff, surrounded by high mountains on three sides and a valley on the other. The airport is about 130 km (81 mi) east of Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal. The coordinates of the airport are 27°41′16″N 086°43′53″E.
The airport’s elevation is 9,334 ft (2,845 m) above sea level. This makes it one of the highest airports in the world, and also one of the most challenging for pilots and passengers. The high altitude affects the air density, which reduces the engine performance and the lift of the wings. The passengers may also experience altitude sickness, which can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue. To prevent this, it is recommended to acclimatize gradually before flying to Lukla, and to drink plenty of water and avoid alcohol.
The weather at Lukla airport is unpredictable and can change rapidly. The airport is often affected by fog, clouds, rain, snow, and wind, which can reduce the visibility and make landing and taking off difficult or impossible. The airport has no radar or instrument landing system, so the pilots have to rely on their visual judgment and experience. The airport is only operational during daylight hours, from 6:30 am to 4:00 pm, and only when the weather is clear. The flights are often cancelled or diverted due to bad weather, which can cause frustration and inconvenience for the passengers.
The busiest season for Lukla airport is from October to November and from March to April, which are the peak seasons for trekking and climbing in the Everest region. During these months, the weather is relatively stable and the views are spectacular. The airport can handle up to 50 flights per day, with an average of 15 to 20 minutes between each flight. The flights are usually fully booked and the tickets are expensive, so it is advisable to book in advance and confirm the flight status before departure. The airport can get crowded and chaotic, with long queues and delays. The passengers have to pay a departure tax of NPR 200 (about US$ 2) at the airport.
The approach to Lukla airport is considered one of the most dangerous in the world, as it involves flying through a narrow valley, dodging the mountains, and landing on a steeply inclined runway. The pilots have to make a sharp turn to align with the runway, which is only visible at the last moment. There is no go-around procedure, meaning that the pilots have to commit to landing once they start the descent. There is also no room for error, as overshooting or undershooting the runway can result in a fatal crash. The pilots have to be highly skilled and experienced, and have a special license to fly to Lukla.
The runway of Lukla airport is only 527 m (1,729 ft) long and 30 m (98 ft) wide, with an 11.7% gradient. This makes it one of the shortest runways in the world, and also one of the most challenging for landing and taking off. The runway is paved with asphalt and has a concrete wall at one end and a steep drop at the other. The runway slopes uphill from south to north, which helps to slow down the landing aircraft and to accelerate the taking off aircraft. The runway is accessible only to helicopters and small, fixed-wing, short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft such as the De Havilland Canada DHC-6 Twin Otter, Dornier 228, L-410 Turbolet and Pilatus PC-6 Turbo Porter.
The airport is a critical cargo hub for the Everest region, as it is the main source of supply for the local people and the trekkers and mountaineers. The airport transports most of the building materials, food, fuel, equipment, and other goods to Lukla and other towns and villages to the north of Lukla, as there is no road to this region. The airport also transports the waste and garbage from the region, to prevent environmental pollution and degradation. The airport plays a vital role in the economic and social development of the region, as well as in the conservation of the natural and cultural heritage.
The airport connects the Everest region with the rest of the world, as it enables the tourists and adventurers to visit this remote and beautiful area. The airport also connects the local people with the outside world, as it provides them with opportunities for education, health, trade, and communication. The airport is a symbol of global connectivity, as it brings together people from different countries, cultures, and backgrounds, who share a common passion for nature and adventure. The airport also fosters a sense of global responsibility, as it raises awareness and appreciation for the challenges and opportunities of the region.
The airport has a medical facility, called the Himalayan Rescue Association (HRA) Aid Post, which provides basic health care and emergency services to the passengers, pilots, staff, and local people. The facility is staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses from different countries, who work in shifts of two to three months. The facility is equipped with a small pharmacy, a laboratory, an oxygen chamber, and a stretcher. The facility treats common ailments such as altitude sickness, respiratory infections, diarrhea, and injuries, as well as serious cases such as frostbite, pulmonary edema, and cerebral edema. The facility also conducts health education and awareness programs for the local people and the visitors.
Lukla airport plays a vital role in facilitating mountaineering expeditions in the Everest region. The airport serves as the primary access point for climbers who aim to summit Mount Everest and other nearby peaks, such as Lhotse, Nuptse, Ama Dablam, and Pumori. The airport enables the transport of crucial expedition supplies, including tents, climbing gear, food, and medical equipment. The airport also provides a base for rescue and emergency operations, as helicopters and small aircraft can evacuate injured or sick climbers from the high-altitude camps to medical facilities in Kathmandu or elsewhere. The airport also connects the climbers with the local Sherpa community, who provide invaluable support and guidance for the expeditions. The airport is a symbol of adventure and achievement, as it marks the beginning and the end of the climbers’ journey to the roof of the world.
The construction of Lukla airport had a major impact on tourism in the Everest region. The airport made it easier and cheaper for tourists to reach the region, and this led to a significant increase in the number of tourists visiting the Everest Base Camp and other attractions. The increase in tourism has had both positive and negative impacts on the local economy, environment, and culture. On the positive side, tourism has generated income and employment opportunities for the local people, who work as guides, porters, lodge owners, and shopkeepers. Tourism has also supported the development of infrastructure, such as roads, schools, health centers, and communication facilities. Tourism has also raised awareness and appreciation for the natural and cultural heritage of the region, and encouraged conservation efforts. On the negative side, tourism has also brought some challenges and problems, such as overcrowding, pollution, waste management, deforestation, cultural erosion, and social conflicts. Tourism has also increased the vulnerability of the region to natural disasters, such as earthquakes, landslides, and avalanches. Tourism has also created a dependency on external markets and resources, and exposed the local people to the risks of inflation, exploitation, and inequality.
Lukla airport faces several challenges and constraints in its development and operation. The airport’s location, design, and surroundings make it difficult to expand and upgrade the facilities and services. The airport’s runway is limited by the terrain and cannot be extended or widened. The airport’s terminal building is small and lacks adequate amenities and security measures. The airport’s equipment and technology are outdated and unreliable. The airport’s staff and personnel are insufficient and undertrained. The airport’s management and regulation are inefficient and inconsistent. The airport’s maintenance and safety are compromised by the harsh weather and frequent accidents. The airport’s sustainability and profitability are threatened by the fluctuating demand and competition from other modes of transportation. The airport’s stakeholders and beneficiaries have diverse and conflicting interests and expectations. The airport’s development and operation require coordination and cooperation among various actors and agencies, such as the government, the airlines, the local authorities, the civil aviation authority, the tourism industry, the environmental organizations, and the local communities.