Turbulence remains a major cause of injury to airline passengers and crew, even as U.S. airlines have steadily improved their overall accident rate in recent years.
A Lufthansa flight from Texas to Germany is the most recent example. The Airbus A330 reported severe turbulence over Tennessee on Wednesday and was diverted to Virginia’s Washington Dulles International Airport. Seven people were taken to hospitals with suspected minor injuries.
Climate change is expected to exacerbate turbulence in coming decades, experts say, though improvements in weather forecasts will help.
According to a 2021 report from the National Transportation Safety Board, turbulence was responsible for 37.6% of all accidents on larger commercial airlines between 2009 and 2018. The Federal Aviation Administration released data last year showing that 146 serious injuries resulted from turbulence from 2009 to 2021.
Last year, over two days in December, a flight to Honolulu and a flight to Houston affected a total of 41 people. In July, severe turbulence resulted in at least eight minor injuries on a flight to Nashville, Tennessee, which had to be diverted to Alabama. Also, three separate flights to Detroit, Miami and Columbus, Ohio resulted in three crew members suffering serial injuries, according to NTSB data.
The NSTB has said more can be done – both within the industry and among passengers – to limit injuries from turbulence. And everyone agrees that wearing a seatbelt during the entire flight significantly reduces the risk of getting injured.
WHAT IS TURBULENCE?
Turbulence is essentially unstable air moving in an unpredictable way. Most people associate it with severe storms. But the most dangerous type is clear-air turbulence, which often occurs with no visible warning in the sky for us.
Turbulence in clear air occurs most often in or near the high-altitude air rivers called jet streams. The culprit is wind shear, which is when two huge air masses close to each other move at different speeds. If the difference in speed is large enough, the atmosphere cannot handle the tension and breaks into turbulent patterns like eddies in water.
“If those vortices are on the same scale as the plane, it causes one side of the plane to go up and one side to go down, or the plane loses altitude very quickly and gains,” said Thomas Guinn, a meteorology professor at the Embry. -Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.
If pilots experience moderate turbulence, they can generally avoid it by flying to a higher altitude, Guinn said. But severe turbulence must be avoided together.
“We can kind of give broad areas of where the turbulence is,” Guinn said. “If the indicators are severe, we generally expect pilots to avoid those regions.”
WHAT ROLE DOES CLIMATE CHANGE PLAY?
Paul D. Williams, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Reading in England, says global warming is changing temperature patterns in the upper layers of the atmosphere. This creates more instability in the jet streams.
“More specifically, at flight altitudes, the tropics warm faster than the poles … leading to stronger north-south temperature differences across the jet stream, and it’s those temperature differences that cause the wind shear,” Williams wrote. in an email.
But the implications for air travelers are not yet fully known, he warned.
“It could be argued that pilots should get better at avoiding turbulence over time, as the specialized forecasts used to seek smooth routes gradually improve,” Williams wrote. “So more turbulence in the atmosphere doesn’t necessarily lead to more injuries.”
HOW COMMON ARE TURBULENCE-RELATED INJURIES?
The 2021 NTSB report found that there were 111 turbulence-related accidents between 2009 and 2018 that resulted in at least one serious injury. That figure applies to commercial aircraft carriers with more than nine passenger seats.
“Most of the seriously injured passengers … are either out of their seats or with their seatbelts unfastened,” the report said.
Flight attendants – who are often on the road – were the most injured, accounting for 78.9% of serious injuries.
Figures released by the FAA in December showed a similar breakdown between 2009 and 2021: 116 of the 146 serious turbulence injuries — or 79% — were among the crew.
Accident reports filed with the NTSB provide examples. For example, turbulence on a flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Miami in July 2021 resulted in a flight attendant “banging hard on the floor” in the aft galley and being diagnosed with “a fractured compressed vertebra.”
On another flight from San Antonio to Chicago in August 2021, a flight attendant was “knocked down by the turbulence” and “was diagnosed with a broken kneecap”. flight attendant fell and broke her ankle during drink service when the plane “unexpectedly entered a cloud and experienced moderate to near-severe turbulence”.
“When turbulence occurs, it can be severe and lead to significant, very serious injuries: everything from broken bones to spinal problems to neck problems,” NTSB Chair Jennifer L. Homendy said in a December interview.
WHAT CAN BE DONE?
The 2021 NTSB report contained a long list of recommendations. They include more information sharing between pilots, airlines and air traffic controllers regarding weather and turbulence incidents.
“We want to ensure that the best suite of technologies are used … to provide the best information to pilots, flight attendants and passengers,” Homendy told The Associated Press.
The agency also pushed for revisions to safety recommendations regarding when flight attendants should be restrained in their seats, including additional descents, which would “reduce flight attendant injuries”.
The report also cited parents unable to hold their babies safely on their laps during turbulence. The NTSB stated that it is safest for children under age 2 to sit in their own seat and use an appropriate child restraint system.
Michael Canders, director of the Aviation Center at Farmingdale State College in New York, said many in the industry are already sharing information about turbulence, while forecasts have improved over the years.
But he’s not convinced it will ever be perfect.
“There’s an argument or debate about, ‘Will technology save us or should we pull out and take better care of the Earth?'” said Canders, who is also an associate professor of aeronautics. “I think we should do both.”
Canders added that preventing injuries from turbulence “is best addressed by sitting in your seat and putting on your seatbelts”.