On Sunday and Monday, 41 people were injured or required medical attention after being thrown around during flights to Honolulu and Houston due to turbulence.
In July, a flight destined for Nashville, Tennessee, was diverted to Alabama due to extreme turbulence, resulting in at least eight minor injuries. According to NTSB statistics, three additional crew members were seriously injured on three separate flights to Detroit, Miami, and Columbus, Ohio this year.
According to a 2021 NTSB study, despite continuous reductions in the overall accident rate among U.S. airlines, turbulence remains a leading cause of accidents and injuries. Between 2009 and 2018, turbulence was the cause of 37.6% of all incidents involving large commercial aeroplanes.
On Monday, the Federal Aviation Administration said that between 2009 and 2021, turbulence caused 146 serious injuries.
Experts predict that climate change will worsen turbulence during the next few decades. Even if better forecasting technology will be helpful, not everyone believes it will ever be flawless.
The NSTB, meanwhile, maintains that more can be done, both by businesses and by travellers themselves. And everyone knows that the easiest way to lessen one’s chances of getting hurt on a flight is to wear a seatbelt the whole time.
WHAT IS TURBULENCE?
A simple definition of turbulence is turbulent air moving in an unpredictable manner. Most people think of it in conjunction with severe weather. However, clear-air turbulence is the most dangerous kind since it is difficult to forecast and there is sometimes no apparent warning in the sky.
Most cases of turbulence in the clear air occur in or near the high-altitude air rivers known as jet streams. Wind shear, which occurs when two large air masses move at different speeds while remaining near together, is to blame. If the disparity in speeds is great enough, the atmosphere will buckle, creating eddies similar to those found in water.
Thomas Guinn, a meteorology professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, explained that when eddies are “on the same scale as the aircraft,” the plane suddenly loses and gains altitude.
The best way to escape turbulence, according to Guinn, is to climb above the clouds. Extreme turbulence, however, must be avoided at all costs.
It’s possible to provide “wide areas” of where the disturbance is, Guinn said. There is a general expectation that pilots will avoid areas when the forecast calls for “extreme” conditions.
WHAT ROLE DOES CLIMATE CHANGE PLAY?
As reported by Paul D. Williams, an atmospheric science professor at the University of Reading in England, global warming is altering the upper atmosphere’s temperature trends. Furthermore, this is leading to increased turbulence in the jet streams.
It is the temperature variations across the jet stream that cause wind shear, and Williams explained in an email that “more specifically, at flight-cruising altitudes, the tropics are warming more rapidly than the poles, leading to higher north-south temperature differences.”
However, he stressed that the full repercussions for airline passengers are not yet clear.
Since the specialised forecasts that are used to search for smooth routes are gradually improving, “one may argue that pilots should be becoming better at avoiding turbulence over time,” Williams noted. Therefore, “more atmospheric turbulence need not lead to a corresponding increase in damage.”
HOW COMMON ARE TURBULENCE-RELATED INJURIES?
The NTSB found that between 2009 and 2018, turbulence contributed to 111 crashes that resulted in at least one major injury. That number is for planes with more than nine seats that are used by commercial airlines.
The majority of passengers who sustain serious injuries “are either out of their seats or seated with their seat belts unfastened,” the research states.
The majority (78.9%) of badly wounded people were flight attendants since they are constantly on their feet.
For the period 2009–2021, the FAA reported Monday that 116 of the 146 major turbulence injuries (79% of the total) occurred in the crew.
The National Transportation Safety Board has examples in the accident reports that people have filed with them. One flight attendant had “a cracked compressed vertebra” after “hitting the floor hard” in the aft galley during turbulence on a July 2021 flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Miami.
In addition, another flight attendant “had fallen to her knees because of the turbulence” on a flight from San Antonio to Chicago in August of last year, resulting in a “diagnosed fractured kneecap.” One flight attendant injured her ankle serving drinks on an October 2021 Baltimore–Atlanta journey when the jet “unexpectedly entered a cloud and suffered moderate to borderline severe turbulence.”
According to NTSB Chair Jennifer L. Homendy, “when turbulence happens, it can be severe and lead to large, very serious injuries: everything from fractured bones to spinal disorders to neck concerns.”
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
In its 2021 report, the NTSB suggested a wide variety of changes. The pilots, airlines, and air traffic controllers all worked together to share more data on the weather and turbulence incidents.
“We want to make sure that the best suite of technology is deployed… to deliver the best information to pilots and flight attendants and passengers,” Homendy said in an interview with The Associated Press.
To “lower the rate of flight attendant injuries,” the agency also called for changes to safety recommendations for when flight attendants should be fastened in their seats, such as during extra segments of descent.
The report also included examples of parents who were unable to safely keep their infants on their laps due to the motion of the aircraft. According to the NTSB, children under the age of two are best protected when they are properly buckled into a child safety seat in their own seat.
Even while turbulence forecasting has improved over the years, Michael Canders, director of the Aviation Center at New York’s Farmingdale State College, says that many professionals in the sector are already sharing information with each other.
But he has doubts that it can ever be completely satisfactory.
Canders, who is also an associate professor of aviation, has observed that “there is this argument or debate over, ‘Will technology save us or do we need to back off and take better care of the earth?’ ” I believe both are necessary.
Canders also noted that “sitting in your seat and seat-belting in” is the “best addressed” method of avoiding injury during turbulence.