Buckle Up: Passenger Death Underlines Climate Pumped Turbulence

March 4, 2023

Why I’ll be always wearing my brown trousers if and when I ever fly.

UPDATE: Must have been a bad week for turbulence. This from The Hill, March 6:

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A Southwest flight was diverted from Raleigh-Durham International Airport, leaving passengers stranded with no information or food in a closed Myrtle Beach airport overnight — along with a full plane of fellow travelers.

The 9-hour ordeal involving Southwest flight 3094 included three passengers vomiting as the plane shook “like crazy,” recounted one North Carolina couple on board. Another person, the couple said, had a panic attack and passed out on the plane amid its wild approach into Raleigh — which was aborted at the last second at 1,350 feet, according to flight data.


The National Safety Transportation Board is investigating the death of a business jet passenger who died Friday during “severe turbulence” over New England.

Three passengers and two crew members were onboard the Bombardier Challenger 300 aircraft as it hit turbulence, according to the NTSB. The aircraft was en route from Keene, New Hampshire, to Leesburg, Virginia. It was eventually diverted to Bradley International Airport in Connecticut following the death.

Eerily prescient story in the Washington Post this morning.

Research has made it clear: Earth’s warming, the result of the burning of fossil fuels, is increasing the risks of bumpy flights.

It has to do with ways warming in the atmosphere influences winds at varying altitudes.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean flight turbulence is becoming more common, despite publicized incidents in recent months involving injuries on flights from Texas to Germany and from Arizona to Hawaii. Airlines have taken measures to minimize or avoid bumpy air, including through improved forecasting of atmospheric turbulence.

Here is what to know about the science behind turbulence and the ways climate change is influencing air travel:

Is global warming causing more turbulence?

Yes, according to Paul Williams, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom. A research paper he co-authored in 2019 found it to be the case on a busy aviation route over the North Atlantic.

Around the world, it has become clear that atmospheric dynamics have changed significantly since scientists first observed them via satellite data in the late 1970s, he said.

A property known as wind shear, the degree to which wind speeds vary at different altitudes, has increased by 15 percent since 1979, the research concluded.

What does that have to do with turbulence? Well, when wind shear is high, those differences in wind speeds create atmospheric disturbances much like rippling, if not raging, waves in a surging river.

“It certainly implies more turbulence,” Williams said.

Is turbulence affecting flights more often?

That is harder to determine from available data.

The Federal Aviation Administration tracks numbers of serious injuries from flight turbulence, defining them as any injury requiring a hospital stay of at least 48 hours. There is no clear trend in its data — annual figures have fluctuated from as many as 18 in 2011 to as few as five in 2013 and 2020.

Turbulence accounted for 37.6 percent of all accidents on large commercial airlines from 2009 through 2018, according to a 2021 National Transportation Safety Board report. The FAA reported 122 serious injuries as a result of turbulence over the same period.

Otherwise, incidents of turbulence on flights aren’t formally tracked.

Why are flights encountering turbulence unexpectedly?

The atmospheric dynamics linked to turbulence, and that climate change is making more common, mean that airplanes don’t need to be flying through a cloud or near a storm to experience bumpy air, Williams said. Flights increasingly experience what is known as “clear air turbulence.”

Lufthansa said its flight that was diverted to Dulles International Airport on Wednesday experienced clear air turbulence as it passed over Tennessee, according to CNN. Radar showed storm activity across the western part of the state at the time of the incident, however; a Lufthansa spokesman did not immediately respond to questions about the potential role of weather.

Depending on the severity of turbulence, injuries can be significant — but they are underreported, Williams said, considering that anything short of a two-day hospital stay is not counted in FAA statistics. In a turbulence incident in December near Hawaii, authorities reported some three dozen people were injured, but only 20 of those were taken to hospitals.

That said, experts say that while severe turbulence is alarming, it is not likely to cause a crash.

Washington Post:

The accounts from the Lufthansa flight were dramatic: Passengers hit the ceiling, food went flying, blood splattered on seats.

Wednesday’s incident on a flight from Austin to Frankfurt, Germany, was the result of “severe” turbulence, the Federal Aviation Administration said, the third of four levels on a scale from light to extreme. The flight diverted to Dulles International Airport because turbulence reported over Tennessee caused injuries that sent seven people to the hospital.

A passenger on the flight who spoke on the condition of anonymity told The Washington Post the plane went into “free fall” during dinner service.

A similar scene played out on a Hawaiian Airlines flight on Dec. 18. Hawaiian Chief Operating Officer Jon Snook said the incident, in which severe turbulence injured 36 people, was “relatively uncommon.”

A day after the incident on the Hawaii-bound flight, however, a United Airlines flight headed to Houston hit turbulence, and five people were taken to the hospital with minor injuries.

Turbulence itself is a frequent occurrence, as any regular traveler can attest — and it typically isn’t cause for alarm, experts say.

“Turbulence is normal; it’s part of the sky,” said Patrick Smith, a commercial pilot for 30 years who runs the Ask the Pilot blog. “Every flight every day encounters some form of rough air. For crews, by and large, we look at it as a comfort issue, not necessarily a safety issue.”

The Federal Aviation Administration describes turbulence as movement of air that usually can’t be seen and that often happens unexpectedly. Roughly 58 people are hurt because of turbulence every year while not wearing their seat belts, the agency says.


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