Are Inflight Turbulence Incidents on the Rise?

Photo Credit: Pixabay

Yesterday’s headlines were rocked by the tragic news of a passenger fatality on board Singapore Airlines flight SQ321.

The incident was attributed to severe turbulence encountered during the flight. It underscores the very real concern of inflight turbulence and its potential dangers.

Turbulence encounters very rarely result in fatalities. Statistically, the chance of an encounter with extreme air turbulence like that experienced by SIA flight SQ321 is also relatively low.

The long haul flight from London to Singapore notably transited the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Converging air in the ITCZ makes this region prone to turbulence.

Nevertheless, yesterday’s tragedy serves as a stark reminder of the potential severity of air turbulence encounters.

SIA flight SQ321 Cabin Aftermath via Twitter/x

Is the Number of Inflight Incidents Rising?

So, are we experiencing more instances of inflight turbulence incidents? The answer, in short, is no. Not according to reports by regulatory bodies such as the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

While the number of incidents has not risen, it may be possible that the severity of such encounters may be on the rise. Some researchers contend that climate change may be causing more extreme cases of air turbulence.

Studies, including one by the University of Reading, suggest a significant increase in clear-air turbulence, a particularly treacherous form virtually undetectable by radar.

This claim is still to be quantified, and researchers themselves state that further research into the phenomenon is required.

What we do know is that our atmosphere is warming, and this shift in temperature potentially has a domino effect on air movement.

Jet streams, the fast-moving currents of air that high-altitude flights often navigate, are becoming more erratic. These disruptions create pockets of clear-air turbulence, posing a greater threat to passenger safety and comfort.

The Challenge of Turbulence Detection

Generally speaking, it is highly unusual for there to be no warning of inflight turbulence. However, that is not to say that it never happens – sometimes little or no warning occurs.

Clear-air turbulence (CAT) earns its name because, unlike its cloud-associated counterpart, it doesn’t give pilots strong visual cues. CAT becomes impossible to physically see and extremely hard to detect using weather radar equipment. 

Many different turbulence forecasting products are available to meteorologists, dispatchers, air traffic controllers and flight crews. Operational staff consider relevant weather data during the flight planning stage for commercial operations.

Pilots also rely on area weather forecasts and actual reports from other aircraft to try and anticipate zones of turbulence. However, the unpredictable nature of some of these pockets, and the sheer number of flights operating on global airways makes complete avoidance difficult.

Seat Belts and Inflight Awareness

Yesterday’s fatality during cruising flight is a tragedy, and it serves as a sobering reminder of the need to remain aware and take some basic precautions.

For passengers, this can be as simple as ensuring seat belts remained fastened at all times whilst seated in an aircraft – even during smooth flight conditions.

Wearing a seat belt while flying significantly reduces your risk of injury during turbulence, according to NTSB findings.

The research revealed that only 21% of those seriously injured from turbulence were passengers.  Nearly all of the passengers injured during turbulence were unbelted at the time.

When turbulence occurs, statistics show that it’s usually flight attendants who suffer. Flight attendants accounted for 79% of all seriously injured occupants in the turbulence-related accidents investigated by the NTSB.

Source: NTSB

It’s also important to remember that commercial aircraft are built to withstand even severe turbulence.

Manufacturers design aircraft with a structural integrity to withstand load factors placed upon them by air turbulence. To minimize passenger discomfort during turbulence, pilots use their extensive training and implement various strategies.

The Bottom Line

While the phenomenon of inflight turbulence will always exist, it shouldn’t deter you from flying. Modern aircraft are designed to handle turbulence, and operating crews are well-trained to navigate these situations.

Importantly, simple precautions by air travellers can greatly minimise personal risk in the event of an inflight encounter.

By understanding the causes and managing any anxieties, you can approach your next flight with confidence. Remember, even though the skies may get bumpy, your safety remains the top priority for airlines and aviation authorities.

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By Len Varley - Assistant Editor 5 Min Read
5 Min Read
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