Why extreme turbulence is on the rise – and the worst regions for bumpy flights

Incidents of extreme turbulence seem to be on the rise. The latest, on an Air Europa plane traveling from Spain to Uruguay on July 2, injured more than 30 passengers and resulted in an emergency landing in Brazil.

It is one of a series of high-profile events in recent years. In May, a British grandfather died and 30 others were injured after a flight from London to Singapore encountered severe turbulence and was forced to divert to Bangkok. Four days later, 12 people were injured on a flight from Doha to Dublin.

Meanwhile, back in March 2023, actor Matthew McConaughey said he was “very upset” when his Lufthansa flight from Austin to Frankfurt experienced severe turbulence, leaving seven passengers on board a hospital. A TikTok video that went viral later showed trays, food and bedding strewn across the cabin.

Damage to an Air Europa plane related to the incident on 2 July

Air Europa plane damaged in July 2 incident – Reuters

Although these incidents are extreme and turbulence-related injuries are rare, bumpy accidents are on the rise according to a 2023 study by the University of Reading published in the journal. Geophysical Research Letters. Analyzing data from the North Atlantic and the US, it was found that severe episodes of clear air turbulence (sudden turbulence in the absence of clouds or storms) increased by 55 percent between 1979 and 2020. Future projections from a team at the university led by Professor Paul Williams suggests that they could further double or even triple in the coming years due to strengthening wind instability and increased pockets of rough air due to climate change, they say.

This is a problem because radar can’t detect clear air turbulence and events often happen “out of the blue,” says meteorologist Jim Dale. “And higher altitude turbulence can occur over wide areas and be difficult to avoid and/or negotiate.”

But while the turbulence may be increasing, technologies are also improving. An algorithm Williams created to predict the strength of turbulence up to 18 hours in advance is among those used by the US National Weather Service in its forecasts and is also working with Airbus to make its planes more resilient in the future.

“They approached us with a lot of questions that we’re trying to answer,” he says. “Due to the long lead time in aircraft design lifecycles, the aircraft that will fly in the second half of this century are currently in the design phase. We need to make sure that the ability to withstand much more turbulence is part of the design standards.”

Meanwhile, the Austrian firm Turbulence Solutions hopes that their technology will “cancel turbulence”, which makes the phenomenon measurable and controllable using sensors, software and LiDAR (light detection and ranging), safer and more comfortable flights. In an interview with Interesting Engineering, CEO Andras Galffy revealed that he hopes to make the system available to commercial airlines by 2030.

Which regions see the worst turbulence?

So far, some flights are definitely bigger than others. Transatlantic routes are notorious for experiencing mild to moderate turbulence due to the unpredictable weather over the ocean, caused by the strong jet stream. And according to data from turbulence forecasting website Turbli, which analyzed 150,000 routes, domestic flights in China were five of the ten most turbulent in 2023. Meanwhile, five of the busiest short-haul routes in Europe lands in Zürich, perhaps because they cross mountain ranges.

“The distribution of global turbulence is pretty consistent from year to year,” explains site creator Ignacio Gallego-Marcos. “This is because turbulence is created by global circulation patterns such as jet streams that have little interannual variability. Over any given year, the jet streams vary in position and strength, with winter being the most turbulent due to the larger temperature difference between the poles and the equator (the main driver for the jet stream).

“But even if the inter-annual variation is small, there can be significant changes from year to year due to the chaotic nature of the weather or oscillations (recurring climate patterns). In 2023 on the East Coast of the US for example, El Niño displaced the jet stream to the south, resulting in stronger turbulence in the New York region (compared to the Boston area in 2022).

Is there any way to avoid turbulence?

One solution is to choose a plane that handles bumps better. Gallego-Marcos recommends the Boeing 787-9 and Airbus A340 for less frequent flights. “You have to take into account the weight divided by the wing area – called ‘wing loading’ and it’s the most important factor,” he says. “The greater the ratio, the smoother the flight.

“Even though airplanes like the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 747 have a lot of weight, they have really big wings so it’s easier to shake them with turbulence than the 787 and the A340. The A340 has the highest wind loading of all, but the 787 has more advanced systems to deal with turbulence.”

Whichever plane you’re going on, choose a seat where the impact of the hips is less dramatic. Traveling in the middle of the plane (near the wings and its center of gravity) ensures a less bumpy ride and a seat in the back will be the most rocky.

“I’m not used to working at the back of an aircraft so that’s the worst,” says Jane Hawkes, who worked as a flight attendant before becoming a consumer hero. “If you’re someone who’s likely to be concerned about turbulence, talk to the staff when you board the plane and see if there’s somewhere they can send you further.”

Rides on the 737 are a little less bumpy, according to expertsRides on the 737 are a little less bumpy, according to experts

Rides on the 737 are a little less bumpy, according to the experts – John D. Parker

What should I do if turbulence strikes?

There’s a reason cabin crew tell passengers to keep their seat belts on. “Sitting with your seat belt on is the most effective way to prevent turbulence-related injury,” according to the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

On a similar note, the American union AFA (Flight Attendants Association) has renewed its call for a ban on babies on laps in 2023, saying the practice is particularly unsafe during severe turbulence and that small children would be better off safety seat with right. restrictions.

Can I claim compensation for disruption?

You certainly won’t get paid just because your flight hits a bumpy patch. However, if you are injured and it can be proven that the airline acted negligently, you may be able to make a personal accident claim.

“If you are not given enough warning to sit down and strap yourself in, you may be entitled to claim general and/or special damages under the Montreal Convention if you are injured as a result,” says Hawkes. “In addition to delay, damage or loss of baggage, the Montreal Convention also establishes airline liability in the event of death or injury to passengers.”

Should I be worried?

Try not to be. The National Center for Atmospheric Research says about 5,500 incidents of severe turbulence are reported by US pilots each year. That number is less than the flights US carriers operate every day: 5,670 according to figures from the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority). However, the same data indicate that there are approximately 65,000 incidents of moderate turbulence.

Hawkes emphasizes the training given to pilots to deal with all eventualities. “These are highly trained professionals. Every six months, they have to go on a flight simulator. They have cases involving turbulence and how they manage it. Even doctors are not tested as much.”

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