Understanding the Hidden Risks and Dangers of Air Turbulence – Roamight
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The Hidden Dangers of Air Turbulence: What Every Traveler Needs to Know

23 May 2024 0 Comments
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Air travel often comes with the occasional bumpy ride, especially on long-haul flights. However, a severe turbulence incident on a Singapore Airlines flight, which tragically resulted in a passenger's death, has heightened concerns about the risks turbulence poses.

What Causes Turbulence?

Turbulence can be categorized into four main levels: light, moderate, severe, and extreme. While light and moderate turbulence might only cause a slight strain against your seatbelt and shift unsecure items around the cabin, severe turbulence can be much more dangerous. In extreme cases, passengers can be thrown around, leading to serious injuries or even fatalities.

Professor Paul Williams from the University of Reading explains, "Turbulence on flights can be caused by storms, mountains, and strong air currents called jet streams. In particular, clear-air turbulence, which doesn't show up on weather radar, can be challenging to avoid."

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) adds that clear-air turbulence is created by atmospheric pressure, jet streams, air around mountains, cold or warm weather fronts, or thunderstorms.

How Dangerous Is It?

While turbulence-related injuries are rare, they do happen. Between 2009 and 2021, the FAA recorded 30 passenger and 116 crew member injuries due to turbulence. Considering the annual global passenger number is around four billion, such incidents remain infrequent. However, turbulence is the leading cause of injuries to flight attendants and passengers in nonfatal accidents on commercial airlines.

Fatal incidents are extremely uncommon. Aside from the recent Singapore Airlines tragedy, a notable incident occurred in December 1997 on a United Airlines flight from Tokyo to Honolulu, resulting in one fatality.

Mark Prosser, a meteorology researcher at the University of Reading, states, "Airlines need to manage the increased turbulence as it costs the industry $150–500 million annually in the USA alone. Each additional minute spent traveling through turbulence increases wear-and-tear on the aircraft and the risk of injuries."

Is Turbulence Getting Worse?

A University of Reading study found that severe turbulence has increased by 55% over the past four decades due to climate change. The report, published in June 2023, highlighted that the total yearly duration of severe turbulence over the North Atlantic had risen significantly between 1979 and 2020.

Williams, co-author of the study, predicts that severe turbulence could double or triple in the coming decades, primarily due to clear-air turbulence, which is difficult to detect and avoid.

Should I Wear a Seatbelt the Entire Flight?

Absolutely. A 2021 report by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) indicated that most passengers injured in turbulence-related accidents were not wearing their seatbelts at the time. Given that clear-air turbulence can occur without warning, staying strapped in throughout the flight is the safest approach.

Can Turbulence Damage Aircraft?

In extreme cases, turbulence can cause structural damage to an aircraft, as stated by the US National Weather Service. Recent severe incidents have also resulted in substantial damage to airplane cabins.

Are Some Routes More Turbulent Than Others?

Turbulence can occur anywhere and at any altitude, but some areas are more prone to it. The Singapore Airlines flight that experienced severe turbulence did so over Myanmar after crossing the Andaman Sea. According to Turbli, a turbulence prediction website, the route between Santiago, Chile, and Viru Viru International Airport in Bolivia is the most turbulent, followed by the route between Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan. In North America, the route from Nashville, Tennessee, to Raleigh/Durham, North Carolina, is the bumpiest.

Conclusion

While turbulence is an inherent part of air travel, understanding its causes and risks can help both aircrew and passengers mitigate its impact. Staying informed and following safety guidelines, such as wearing a seatbelt throughout the flight, can make your journey safer and more comfortable.

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